Barry Zito was in a heap of trouble.
He stood on the mound in Oakland, a 22-year-old in the fifth inning of his big league life, flush with anticipation, having recently arrived with a rainbow curveball that was the talk of the minors.
The Anaheim Angels loaded the bases with nobody out, heart of the order coming up. Zito already had issued six walks and hit a batter.
But when the moment most required it, Zito found the strike zone. He froze Mo Vaughn with a curveball. He threw a high-and-tight fastball to Tim Salmon, who couldn't check his swing. Then Zito dropped in two curveballs to get ahead of Garret Anderson, finishing him off with a slider in the dirt.
The green-and-gold crowd thundered. And now, almost 11 years later, Zito is feeling the anticipation again.
After more than two months on the disabled list and a trip of rediscovery in the minor leagues, Zito is fresh off the farm and returning to the Giants' rotation Tuesday. He is scheduled to start the second game of a doubleheader at Wrigley Field.
"I'm excited. I've been counting the days," said Zito, who had never been on the disabled list before spraining his right foot April 16 at Arizona. "You do it for so long and don't miss a turn. You forget all the joy that goes along with just being out there. "... It just teaches you to focus on your day-to-day responsibilities and not on the big picture. Everything will take care of itself."
The picture is different
Long ago, Giants fans accepted that Zito would never live up to his $126 million contract. He had a chance to alter his standing Oct. 2, when he was given an opportunity to nail down the National League West title. He responded by walking in two runs in the first inning, and when the postseason began, management left him off the roster.
Expectations might be meager. But the moment requires that Zito find the strike zone again.
Ryan Vogelsong, who starts the other game of Tuesday's doubleheader, took Zito's rotation spot in April and ran with it. But the Giants need Zito to make at least three starts before the All-Star break while Jonathan Sanchez is on the disabled list. Their league-worst offense leaves little margin for error, too.
At least Zito is feeling well-prepared this time.
When his foot healed after a couple of weeks, he and Giants officials used the injury as an opportunity to work on some mechanical tweaks, reshape his pitches and search for some of the lost steam on his mid-80s fastball.
The Triple-A Salt Lake Bees might be a far cry from a big league lineup, but Zito's stuff certainly played well against them. He threw a two-hit shutout June 21, striking out seven.
It was the last stop in a minor league matriculation that began at extended spring training in Arizona and passed through Single-A San Jose before heading to the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.
"He's coming off a great outing, he's excited, and he feels good about where he is," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "Going down did something for him. He got back to playing the game the way it should be played, having fun and taking pressure off.
"You're playing hard, but at the same time, you're realizing how fortunate you are to play baseball. I think that's important for players to be reminded of that. It brought back memories, and it probably helped him, too."
Although it might mean little to outsiders, those within the Giants clubhouse didn't forget how Zito kept throwing on the side all through October, staying ready in case the team needed him.
"He's a part of our team," right-hander Matt Cain said. "I know he's itching to get back out there. We're definitely pumped for him. We'll be rooting for him, obviously."
So will Zito's father, Joe, who has required constant care since October because of a chronic heart condition.
"He's fired up," Zito said of his father. "He'll be watching."
Pitching coach Dave Righetti worked with Zito to get more drive and extension in his delivery. Some of the changes stuck. Others were discarded. Zito probably won't look radically different when he takes the mound at Wrigley Field.
But confidence -- or a lack of it -- manifests itself soon enough. In a sense, Zito takes the mound with the bases already loaded.
Giants (Ryan Vogelsong 5-1) at Cubs (Doug Davis 1-6), 11:20 a.m. CSNBA
Giants (Barry Zito 0-1) at Cubs (Rodrigo Lopez 0-1), 5:05 p.m. CSNBA