"If you give it up on Opening Day, you've got 30-some starts left. In the playoffs, in a five-game series, there's no guarantee that you're going to see the mound again, even if you pitch great."
Zito did indeed "give it up" on Opening Night this year, getting tagged for seven earned runs on four hits and four walks over 1 1/3 innings against the visiting Yankees. But over the course of his final 33 starts, he re-established himself as one of the most reliable pitchers in the AL.
That initial pounding from the Yankees kept his overall ERA up in the ugly zone for the better part of five weeks, but he went 3-1 with a 1.32 ERA in May to get his ERA down to a 3.16.
He went 4-1 with a 3.95 ERA in June, earning a spot on the AL All-Star team along the way, and after a ho-hum July (3-3, 4.02), he was back to brilliant in August, going 4-1 with a 3.40 ERA.
Another brief slide followed in early September, when he gave up 11 runs in 11 innings of his first two starts, but he finished strong and closed out his regular-season workload with six strong innings -- one run on seven hits -- against the Angels in Anaheim on Thursday.
For the year, Zito went 16-10 with a 3.83 ERA, and that last game in Anaheim was emblematic of his season to an extent; the A's were blanked and he got stuck with another tough loss.
Zito received three runs or less of support in 18 of his 34 starts this season, and according to A's catcher Jason Kendall, that cost him a lot of national attention.
"There were a lot of times early in the year when we gave him nothing as an offense," Kendall says. "If we do a better job for him in the first half, he's a 20-game winner again and people are talking about maybe another Cy Young."
Zito isn't big on what-ifs, so the lack of early run support barely registers with him. The number he's most proud of is 221 -- his number of innings pitched this year. He eclipsed the 220-innings mark for the fourth time in his six full seasons, and he's thrown at least 213 innings in every season save his rookie campaign.
"I feel like I've been pretty consistent, and I've been durable, which is always a huge goal for me going into the season," Zito says. "There were a couple of rough patches, but everyone goes through those over the course of a season, and what was great from a personal standpoint is that I was able to make adjustments to get out of those little funks."
For five years a member of Oakland's vaunted Big Three, Zito always worked behind either Tim Hudson or Mark Mulder during the A's run of four consecutive playoff appearances from 2000-2003. Zito's postseason numbers are solid, at 3-2 with a 2.76 ERA in five starts, but he's never pitched the A's past the first round, and because he knows that this is likely the last of his seven seasons with Oakland, advancing is his only focus entering the ALDS.
Zito will be a free agent this winter, and the A's have repeatedly suggested that they won't be able to afford to bring him back.
"That's definitely a part of it," Zito concedes. "I want to pitch well and set the tone for the series, and hopefully that extends my time in green and gold. This isn't about me as an individual by any means, but it's no secret this is probably my last go-round with these guys, and there's no doubt that I have a little extra motivation to go out doing something I've never done here before, and that's getting to the ALCS and beyond.
"If this is going to be it for me, I want it to end with feeling and meaning and pride and intensity and focus and all that. And that's what going to the playoffs is all about. I'm psyched."