OAKLAND, Ca. - When Barry Zito is on - as one of baseball's toughest lefthanders often is - his games can be works of art.
So when Zito trotted out a familiar blue print in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers, he seemed his same old, unflappable, unbeatable self.
Five weak grounders, a foul-out and two harmless fly balls to the outfield from the first eight batters tend to make you look that good.
It was enough to impress most everyone in sold-out McAfee Coliseum.
Everyone but the Detoit Tigers, that is.
The team that is making a habit of pulling upsets and surprises this post-season, struck before boisterous crowd of 35,655 could really settle into their seats. Unleashing their fury of an offense on Zito, the Tigers drove the lefthander back to the ranks of mere mortals with a convincing 5-1 win.
A fine pitching performance did mark the first game of the best-of-seven series. It just wasn't turned in by Zito, but rather Nate Robertson, a 29-year-old lefty who stymied Oakland with five innings of shutout ball.
The primary news last night, though, was Zito and what was done to him by the upstart, underestimated Tigers lineup. For the AL wild-card winning Tigers once again had impressed upon another big-time pitcher that they were hard to, well, impress.
The Yankees' Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina, after all, had been mowed down by Jim Leyland's purportedly too-young, too-free-swinging hitters during Detroit's Division Series triumph.
Now what looks to be a pretty disciplined offense has added Zito to its collection. And it was convincing as Detroit handed him his shortest outing since April 3, when he was knocked from Oakland's season opener by seven Yankees runs in just 1 1/3 innings.
"I got away from my gameplan, trying to focus on every pitch, I was just trying to be too fine," said Zito.
"To tell you the truth, I think playing the Yankees, it really helped us with our offensive approach," said Leyland, because we mentioned something about how patient the Yankees were and how they made the pitcher work and everything."
"Some changeups got hit pretty well tonight because the fastball didn't keep them honest," said Zito. "I just need better fastball command. When I put the fastball where I want, it makes the off-speed pitch thaht much more effective. "