|Barry Zito does it with the bat, too, driving in a run with a perfect base-hit bunt. (US Presswire)|
ST. LOUIS -- Barry Zito has always been known for his curveball, and the Giants' Game 5 starter out of desperation threw the figurative curveball of this postseason Friday night by stifling, flummoxing and ultimately frustrating the world champion St. Louis Cardinals with his collection of slow and slower pitches and an occasional 84-85 mph high "heater" mixed in.
Nobody saw this coming, maybe least of all the Cardinals, a.k.a. the Kings of October.
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Zito may always be seen as the recipient of one of the biggest, most ill-advised contracts in baseball history, but for one night at least he was an absolute necessity for the San Francisco Giants against destiny's darlings. Zito threw the best, most surprising game of his otherwise mostly underwhelming Giants career to send the National League Championship Series back to the Bay with a 5-0 Giants victory out of nowhere.
The clutch-as-can-be Cardinals still lead the NLCS 3-2, but let's not forget the Giants are second in the league in miracles to only St. Louis. Let's not forget they also beat the Reds in the Division Series after trailing 2-0, and going back to 2010, won a World Series when nobody was looking.
The celebration in this great baseball city is on hold now that Zito has summoned 2006.
He has adjusted and re-adjusted countless times since jumping from Oakland to the other side of the Bay, but the formula he used against the stellar righty-heavy Cardinals lineup required plenty of guts -- a diet of belt-high and higher 84- to 85-mph fastballs mixed with off-speed pitches delicately placed in all quadrants of the strike zone.
For a night at least, Zito was back in his A's heyday, back to when he was winning his last playoff game, and outdueling an in-his-prime Johan Santana. That last playoff win of his, on Oct. 3 2006, came just a couple months before the Giants made him the richest pitcher in baseball at that point, giving him a $126-million contract that will simultaneously enrich and haunt him forever.
"That's not going away," said Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti.
This one was even better than that 2006 gem, Zito said, maybe the best of his career. The curveball was sharp, the poise impressive and the location uncanny, but that's not really what made this his best game. It's that he did it in a Giants uniform. He stuck around and persevered, and he delivered 7 2/3 innings of shutout ball. For one night, at least, he exceeded his paycheck.
Zito and the Giants have been searching for six years, through trials, tribulations and thrashings, for the key to return him to stardom. And for one night he was all the way back.
"It's always in there," Righetti said, somewhat hopefully. "It never goes away."
Well, it certainly was on hiatus for quite some time. But the Cardinals surely didn't consider Zito's performance an illusion of any sort. He beat them here in August, and they are sold now, if they weren't before.
"He's throwing pillows on the couch," is the way David Freese put it. "You get wide-eyed when the ball's mid-80s and letter high. He understands that. In the course of his career, I'm sure he's gotten swings on high heaters. Then he changes eyesights, gets you moving one way or another, in and out or up and down, and he finds ways to get you out."
Zito got all but the final four outs, drastically rewriting a consistent Cardinals script of early knockouts.
Righetti talked about how he nervously worried one of the Cardinals hard-hitting righty swingers might actually hurt Zito (yes, physically, with a batted ball). But Zito, like Righetti a left-handed Californian, was said by everyone around the Giants to be eerily calm.
"You have to manage your emotions," he said.
Even after his first postseason win since '06, Zito stayed strangely calm. He wore a gray fedora into the interview room, and talked barely above a deadpan.
As for whether he surprised himself, he said, "I was living pitch to pitch, moment to moment." In other words, he didn't say.
Maybe he's becoming numb to snipers. Maybe he can even get back on Twitter (He had to give it up years ago for all the insults in his inbox).
"He's a tough kid," said Righetti, before correcting himself slightly about the 34-year-old. "Well, he's not a kid anymore."
No, how time flies. Peter Magowan, the Giants' managing partner when the deal was done, first thought this was year five of the deal before correcting himself to say six. They've long since hoped it would pay off to the exact dollar figure.
But Magowan recalled that they wanted someone who'd lead, and someone who'd never miss a start, and by those standards, it didn't feel quite so bad. Zito does both of those things.
Magowan knows the overall score, but at the moment it felt great. "It didn't work out as everyone had hoped, as he had hoped," Magowan said. "To see him rise to the occasion, well, I'm very happy for him."
The whole San Francisco experience has been quite something, as he has endured beatings from opponents and bashings from fans who thought their money might have been better spent elsewhere. There was a #RallyZito hashtag that took off Friday, and when he was asked about it, Zito responded, "I tried Twitter a couple years ago, and it was a pretty devastating experience for me."
It's true Zito won 15 games in the regular season, but that was thanks largely to a relentless Giants offense that average 5.96 runs per game for him, third most for any starter in the National League. And so were the 12 straight Zito starts the Giants won. In truth, the only thing he's gobbled up since getting to San Francisco are innings, and, of course, dollars.
But this was different. This was Zito suddenly transforming from a No.5 starter (albeit a very good No. 5 starter) to an ace. He allowed six hits, he struck out six Cardinals and the only walk was an intentional one to Pete Kozma that helped him out of his one serious jam, a bases-loaded threat in the second.
Two innings later, the Giants broke open a scoreless game by taking advantage of a miscue by Cardinals starter Lance Lynn, who helped turn a potential double-play into a four-run inning when his throw to second actually hit the second base bag and bounded into center field. Brandon Crawford followed with a two-run single.
Then Zito executed what might be the first bunt hit of his major-league career to make it 4-0. In fact, a web site suggested it was indeed Zito's first bunt base hit, and Zito did agree that that was probably right.
"Yes, I do. I'm known for my Arabian horse gallop ... Just not that fast," Zito said.
That was yet another Zito curveball on a night where that was the theme. The Giants have a lot of Cardinals in them. They never quit. Zito didn't either. He battled his heart out, for six years to be exact, and now his Giants have a real shot. The last two World Series winners will continue their fight in San Francisco with the Giants now having a real chance to pull off yet another series comeback -- thanks to their improbable Game 5 hero.