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Zito gets the ball in Game 1 after dazzling Cards in NLCS

By Matt Kawahara, The Sacramento Bee –

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who two years ago told Barry Zito he would not be a part of the team’s postseason plans that season, tried to deliver some happier news to the former Cy Young Award winner Tuesday. And tried. And tried again.

What Bochy wanted to say was that Zito would be taking the ball in Game 1 of the World Series for the Giants Wednesday against the Detroit Tigers and their ace, Justin Verlander.

“I tried to call him all day,” Bochy said. “He left his phone at the ballpark, so I couldn’t get ahold of him.”

Circumstances of the misplacing were not clear. But the possibility the phone had been forgotten amid the Giants’ clubhouse celebration Monday night underscored the difference between their route into the Series and that of the Tigers.

While the Giants finished off the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series at home, the Tigers watched from Detroit, having clinched the American League pennant four days earlier by sweeping the New York Yankees.

That gave manager Jim Leyland plenty of time to set his rotation with Verlander at the top, ruling out any communication breakdown.

“He told me he was pitching Game 1,” Leyland said of Verlander, “so I said OK.”

Zito, meanwhile, will be pitching Wednesday on regular rest after his series-saving Game 5 start against the Cardinals, setting up a fascinating contrast in styles.

In St. Louis, Zito beguiled the Cardinals with curveballs and changeups that allowed him to sneak his 85-mph fastball past a series of hitters. After the game, he said, “Yeah, my fastball is set up by my off-speed, that’s no secret.

“If I can command the fastball to both sides of the plate and throw most of my off-speed for strikes, I’ll get them to miss the barrel, and that’s what I’m going for.”

Verlander, the 2011 Cy Young Award winner and American League MVP, is a fireballer who consistently throws in the mid- to-high 90s to go with a knee-buckling curveball. He has been the best pitcher on the best pitching staff in the playoffs, going 3-0 with an 0.74 ERA in 241/3 innings and striking out 25.

Giants second baseman Marco Scutaro, who hardly ever swings and misses at a pitch, has faced Verlander 23 times, managed five hits and struck out eight times. His experience against the Tigers’ ace dwarfs that of any other Giants regular, so he was asked if he could give his teammates some insight on how to approach a Verlander at-bat.

“Just, good luck,” Scutaro cracked. “No, go out and stick with your plan, hopefully just look for a pitch and get it. He’s a power pitcher who knows how to pitch. He can throw you any pitch in any count, and that’s what makes him so tough.”

Scutaro, playing in his first World Series, made the playoffs once before — with the 2006 A’s team featuring Zito that Verlander and the Tigers ousted in the A.L. Championship Series. The Tigers then had a six-day layoff before the World Series, which they lost to St. Louis.

Leyland made it clear Tuesday that the Tigers didn’t just lie around during that time. But faced with a five-day break before this year’s Series, the Tigers scrimmaged and brought in players from their instructional league to allow their hitters to face live pitching and their pitchers live hitters.

For that reason, neither team Tuesday made much out of the fact the Giants had to stave off elimination three times in the NLCS to get here while the Tigers were watching them do it — least of all Zito.

“They’re still 25 guys with immense talent, so that’s probably going to come to the surface tomorrow night,” Zito said.

The Giants will be trying to win for the 14th time in a row behind Zito, whose resurgence this year, in which he went 15-8 in his first winning season as a Giant, has carried over into the playoffs. After lasting just 22/3 innings in his lone start of the division series, Zito pitched 72/3 scoreless innings against the Cardinals with the Giants facing elimination in Game 5.

After the game, Zito said it was “certainly a huge blow personally” being left off the 2010 playoff rosters. He acknowledged Tuesday that starting today “means a lot” but stopped short of reminiscing.

“It’s not important to reflect right now,” Zito said. “There’s work to do.”

It was telling, though, that Bochy said when he finally did deliver the news to Zito, the left-hander was “ecstatic.”

“I was really glad, proud to tell him,” Bochy added. “And I told him that — ‘I’m glad to hand you the ball on the first game’ — with all he’s been through and the way he’s handled it.”

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