On the final day of spring training in 2012, Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti stood a few feet from Scottsdale Stadium's bullpen mound in nice slacks, a blazer and dress shoes. He watched silently as Barry Zito went through a bullpen session in a stadium that was otherwise nearly completely cleaned out.
Zito was lost, stuck in a desperate search to find a fix. A few months earlier, he had contemplated walking away from one of the richest deals in MLB history. A few days earlier, he had been sent to pitch in a minor league game because that was the only place the staff could guarantee that Zito would get his pitch count up without getting hit so hard he had to get pulled from a game.
Had young lefty Eric Surkamp stayed healthy that spring, perhaps the Giants would have gone in a different direction entirely. But they had no choice but to slide Zito back into their rotation, and he got the ball for the fourth game of the season. The Giants had lost their first three and were playing at Coors Field. They started a pitcher who had given up 32 hits and 17 runs in 19 1/3 innings that spring.
It was a recipe for disaster -- and then Zito went out and threw a shutout.
"Don't think anybody saw the complete game shutout coming so early in the season, especially in Colorado," manager Bruce Bochy said via text Thursday. "The manager got to sleep that night."
The win was an early pivot point for a team that would go on to win the World Series in part because of Zito's postseason heroics. A losing streak to start a year can put any group of talented players in a funk, and Bochy knew how important that game was. In the years that followed, he often talked about it as being a key day for that 2012 group.
"You hate to start the season 0-3 as it's magnified so much," he said Thursday. "I'm thinking we need to win a game for the squad coming off three straight tough losses for their psyche. Now I have a fly ball pitcher going in Colorado so I'm expecting a high scoring game and the bullpen getting usage after a lot of work the first three games. His game stopped our tough streak, saved our pen and brought sanity in the early go. His nice mix of high fastballs and curveballs out of the same slot was a thing of beauty."
NBC Sports Bay Area will air the Zito shutout at 8 p.m. on Thursday night. Zito talked about that performance while appearing on the Giants Insider Podcast last year, and he noted that it's a game he almost didn't pitch for reasons nobody knew about at the time.
After being left off the postseason roster in 2010 and struggling with injuries in 2011, Zito almost retired before the 2012 season.
"I was very close to walking away," he said. "Thank God I didn't. That was such a special year."