ST. LOUIS — The San Francisco years have been the bust of times for Barry Zito, but in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals Friday, it was the best of times for the eccentric lefthander, who had his glory days with the Oakland A’s before signing a $126 million contract to pitch in the City by the Bay.
Zito pitched 7⅔ scoreless innings and saved the day for the Giants, who faced elimination at Busch Stadium. Instead, Zito sent them back to AT
Call them the sleeping Giants, but the Cardinals have awoken them at a time when they easily could have put them away for good.
“We didn’t think for a moment that they would go away,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. “We ran into a guy out there today and he pitched us tough. [Zito] was raising eye-level, taking speeds off his breaking ball. If you can locate and keep us off balance you don’t need to throw 99.”
Zito, who allowed six hits, walked one (intentionally), and struck out six, said of his performance, “All things considered I have playoff memories but they’re all in a different uniform so this is the biggest one for me.”
Zito seemed to revive his career this season, posting a 15-8 record with a 4.15 ERA in 32 starts.
“I couldn’t be happier for him,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “He’s done a great job for us this year. We’ve won 13 straight with him on the mound now. He always found a way to win a game for us. He’s been through a lot, I know. You go back to 2010, but this guy is some kind of tough and a stand-up guy. We were comfortable with him on the mound.”
In 2010, Zito was left off the postseason roster as the Giants went on to win the World Series.
“It was a blow to be left off that postseason roster, but you have to be professional about it. I went back and worked on a lot of things and I think I learned a lot,” Zito said.
Bochy has been impressed with the way Zito has handled adversity in his Giants career.
“You have to give him credit how he’s handles things,” Bochy said. “Rags (pitching coach Dave Righetti) talks to him quite a bit. He’s relentless in trying to get better as a pitcher. He came in this spring and had a rough spring. We lost the first three games of the season and he goes and throws a shutout against Colorado and he’s been consistent all year,” Bochy said.
The fourth inning was a killer for Cardinals starter Lance Lynn, who allowed four unearned runs to give the Giants a 4-0 lead.
“I thought he was as good as I’ve seen for the first three innings,” Matheny said. “I thought he was untouchable. He was really pitching.”
Marco Scutaro got the first hit off Lynn with a leadoff single in the fourth, followed by another single to right by Pablo Sandoval. After a strikeout of Buster Posey, who is having a poor postseason at the plate (6 for 33 entering the game), Hunter Pence looked to have done Lynn a large favor by tapping back to the mound.
Lynn was thinking double play for sure. He spun around and threw the ball right to the second base bag. Trouble is, shortstop Pete Kozma, who was playing in the hole, didn’t get there in time. The ball bounced off the bag into center field, scoring the first Giants run.
After Brandon Belt popped to second base, Gregor Blanco walked to load the bases. Shortstop Brandon Crawford delivered a two-run single up the middle.
Then came what might have been the most athletic play of the game, and it was by Zito. He dragged a bunt down the third base line and beat it out for a hit, scoring the fourth Giants run.
“It was definitely my first-ever bunt hit. You have to have some speed to beat out a bunt so it has to be perfect. I don’t run that well, so I saw an opportunity there. I knew I couldn’t get a hit against Lynn,” Zito said.
The Cardinals had a golden opportunity in the second inning when they loaded the bases with one out on a single by Yadier Molina, a double by David Freese, and an intentional walk to Kozma that brought Lynn to the plate. Zito induced a 6-4-3 double play to deflate the Cardinals and the sea of red at Busch Stadium.
“I’m not a sinkerball pitcher so I never think I’m going to get a ground ball there, but I was very happy it happened because it took us out of a tough situation,” Zito said.
The crowd kept waving their homer hankies, made some noise, and tried to instill some urgency into the Cardinal offense in the seventh inning.
It was thought Zito would tire by this point, but once again he came out throwing strikes and wound up quieting the crowd.
“I was living pitch to pitch and moment to moment,” Zito said.
And this was his moment.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.