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LOUD AND CLEAR: ZITO MAKES HIS PITCH TO A'S.

Byline: Kevin Modesti

PHOENIX - It was a split-squad Cactus League game, not the major- league All-Star Game, and the strikeout victims were Todd Greene, Archi Cianfrocco and Ben Molina, not a Hall of Famer in the bunch.

So what Barry Zito accomplished with his curveball one crisp afternoon this week at Phoenix Municipal Stadium didn't set Carl Hubbell spinning like a screwball in his grave.

But with three flashy though efficient innings in relief against the Angels, striking out the side in the 1-2-3 sixth, the former Pierce College and USC left-hander at least gave pause to Oakland Athletics management, which has ticketed him for Triple-A Vancouver.

``I think,'' A's manager Art Howe said after Zito's winning performance, ``he's trying to send us a message.''

Zito, the blond-streaked, beach-loving, guitar-strumming son of an entertainment agent and a former New Age pastor - not that he's a California stereotype or anything - is glad for the chance to change the A's minds.

``They're giving me a chance to show what I can do,'' Zito said in the clubhouse while icing his elbow and chugging a healthful blend of oatmeal, bananas, flaxseed oil and protein powder.

The upside of being a 21-year-old pitcher with the A's, a decade removed from their last World Series appearance, is that you're going to get that chance.

The downside is that all of the A's other twentysomethings are going to get that chance, too.

Mark Mulder, 22 and a year and a half out of Michigan State, probably will beat Zito to a spot at the bottom of the five-man starting rotation. Tim Hudson, 24, beat them both, going 11-2 after being called up last June.

Also starting for the A's are left fielder Ben Grieve, 23, the American League Rookie of the Year in 1998; shortstop Miguel Tejada, 23; third baseman Eric Chavez, 22, and catcher Ramon Hernandez, 23.

Ryan Christensen and A.J. Hinch, 25-year-olds who could be the starters in center and behind the plate, are relative graybeards in green and gold.

Zito, Mulder and Hudson fit a pattern for the A's, the consensus Baseball Organization of the Year for 1999. The club has emphasized drafting college pitchers, and has a sensational success rate with its recent first-round picks.

This is the most resilient franchise in baseball, if not all of professional sports, having weathered moves from Philadelphia to Kansas City to Oakland, soldiered on through cycles of dynasty, salary dumping and recovery through decades of Connie Mack and Charlie Finley, and lately survived perpetual rumors of further relocation.

Those rumors were to blame for small crowds at A's home games in 1999.

The stay-at-home fans missed the club's most amazing recovery yet, a 13-game improvement to finish second in the American League West at 87-75,only a 7-11 finish costing the A's a playoff spot, all on a player payroll of only $22 million.

If it's the older players (30-homer, 100-RBI hitters Jason Giambi, John Jaha and Matt Stairs, former Angels pitcher Omar Olivares) who led the A's to their first winning season since 1992, it's kids like Zito who will continue the rise.

``This is a good place to be,'' Zito said after his victory against the Angels on Wednesday. ``I think there's a bright future for Oakland.''

Whether he makes the roster now, later in the season or next year, Oakland is somewhere Zito is likely to stay for more than a few months. His college career was a four-school odyssey, his minor-league debut a three-city whirlwind.

Zito was not drafted out of high school in San Diego, so he pitched for a season at UC Santa Barbara, then transferred to Pierce in Woodland Hills, knowing that playing at a junior college would make him eligible for the following June's draft.

After going 9-2 for Pierce, he was taken in the third round by the Texas Rangers but didn't sign. His father, Joe, acted as his agent and demanded a $350,000 signing bonus. The Rangers offered $285,000.

Barry enrolled at Grossmont College to earn an AA degree so he could transfer back to the four-year college level at USC. He went 12-3 with 154 strikeouts in 113 2/3 innings and was named All-America.

He was taken by the A's with the ninth pick of the June 1999 draft and this time he asked Joe to stay out of the negotiations. He signed for $1.59 million and 12 weeks later had powered his way through Single-A Visalia, Double-A Midland, Texas, and was pitching at Vancouver.

Despite worrying about his mother, who needed a liver transplant last July, and leaving his teams briefly to be with her, Zito went 6-1 with 97 strikeouts in 68 1/3 innings at the three minor-league levels combined.

His mother, Roberta, a former pastor for a metaphysical church called Teaching of the Inner Christ, recovered and was able to watch Barry help Vancouver to the Triple-A World Series championship.

Among other things, it was his focus and refinement at such a young age that impressed the A's.

``He's got three quality pitches and he's not afraid to pitch inside,'' said second baseman Randy Velarde, the former Angel whose trade to Oakland last July marked the start of the 29-14 spurt that briefly put the A's in the lead for the American League wild card. ``The kid's right out of college. It's incredible.''

A's pitching coach Rick Peterson remarked on how quickly Zito has advanced from the rudiments of grip and delivery to the niceties of game planning.

``In retrospect, I think it was huge for me not to sign (with the Rangers in 1998),'' Zito said this week, reflecting on his own maturity.

Against the Angels, Zito gave up two harmless hits. Scheduled for 55 pitches, he completed his three innings in 39 and had to go from the mound to the bullpen to finish his work.

It was a thirtysomething performance from a twentysomething. The A's expect to see a lot of those.
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 11, 2000
Words:1000
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