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Zito's Wait Will Finally Pay Off

LOS ANGELES--At times last fall, Barry Zito wondered if he had made the right decision. After being selected by the Rangers in the third round of the 1998 draft, Zito's heart told him to sign. But he followed his father's advice and sat tight.

As he attended classes at a junior college, recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, his January transfer to defending national champion Southern California seemed like it would never arrive.

"I regretted not signing for awhile," Zito said. "But now, I'm so happy I didn't sign because I feel like my draft position is going to he better."

There is no doubt it will be. Zito's name will be near the top of nearly every team's list on draft day. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound junior lefthander completed a dominant regular season, going 11-2, 3.46 and striking out 141 in 96 innings.

Entering the NCAA regionals, Zito had won his last 10 starts. He went 8.0 in Pacific-10 Conference play, joining former Arizona standout Scott Erickson and former USC pitcher Seth Etherton as the only pitchers ever to win all of their Pac-10 starts.

Strikeout Artist

Zito's performances weren't just impressive. They were overpowering.

Zito struck out 16 batters in a game three times—in consecutive seven-inning appearances against Oregon State and Arizona and in a two-hit complete-game victory over UCLA. He also struck out 12 in 6 2/3 innings against Arizona State and 11 in six innings against Stanford.

"I like striking guys out, and if I'm not doing it, I know I'm not doing something right," Zito said. "I mean, take a win any way I can get it. But if I'M not striking guys out, I get kind of flustered. I don't feel like I'm in sync."

Zito hardly missed a beat this season. He was the Trojan workhorse, a pitcher who gave USC a guaranteed win at the start of every Pac-10 series. The Trojans rode Zito's performance to a second-place finish behind Stanford. They parlayed that success into earning a host site for one of 16 NCAA regionals in the newly expanded 64 team playoffs.

'We were excited to know that we would be getting Barry and we believed he would be very good with a chance to have an outstanding year," Trojans coach Mike Gillespie said. 'But he has been everything and more."

New Years, New Colleges

Zito's road to USC and to becoming probable first-round draft pick—and instant millionaire—is full of twists and turns.

He was not drafted out of University High in San Diego after going 8-4, 2.92 with 105 strikeouts in 85 innings. Asa freshman at UC Santa Barbara, he went 3-6, 6.43 and struck out 123 in 85 innings. Zito transferred to Pierce Junior College in Woodland Hills, Calif, for his sophomore season so he could be eligible for the draft.

"I loved Santa Barbara, but I wanted to sign and didn't want to wait until after my junior year," he said.

At Pierce, Zito went 9-2, 2.62 and fanned 135 in 103 innings. He also gave scouts the impression that he was eager to sign and begin his professional career.

The Rangers selected Zito in the third round, but the club and Zito were unable to reach an agreement and he spent the summer pitching for Wareham in the Cape Cod.

"They handled it just like they should," Zito said. "You come in low and eventually come up to a number.

"My dad really wanted more money. If it was up to me alone, I would have signed for $300,000 or $350,000 . . I'm glad I stuck to my family's wishes."

Chuck McMichael, the Rangers' scouting director, declined to discuss the negotiations. It Barry Zito was the right guy in the right spot for us we would take him again," he said.

The Rangers, who don't have a selection until the 38th pick, are not likely to get the chance. Zito is regarded as a premium commodity—a lefthanded power pitcher from the college ranks.

"I don't think I've ever pitched as consistently as I have this season," Zito Said. -I've been going out every day being just as focused. I have not been complacent."

Said USC catcher Eric Munson, a certain first-round pick: "He's the easiest guy to catch because you just put your sign down, put your glove up and he hits it. Even when he doesn't have his good stuff, he bulldogs and gets outs."

Zito said pitching for a national championship would be the ultimate way to cap a dream season. And make no mistake, Zito said, this is the end of his college career.

"There has been some speculation that I'm not going to he an easy sign," he said. "But I laugh at that because what do I want to do? Everyone knows I'm not cooling back here. It's like a done deal."

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