Zito cruises as Giants sweep Astros

Zito cruises as Giants sweep Astros

SAN FRANCISCO -- While the Giants were defeating the A's last Sunday in Oakland, Bengie Molina prepared Barry Zito to beat the Houston Astros at AT&T Park on Wednesday night.

Molina, the Giants catcher, rested on Sunday. So he took the opportunity to chat with Zito, who allowed seven runs and walked seven two nights earlier. Pitching aggressively was the dominant subject of the 15-minute exchange.

"That was one of the first things I mentioned to him, that he's trying to pick up too many corners and trying to make them miss instead of making the hitters hit his pitch," Molina said.

With this reinforcement of a concept he already understood, Zito was poised to succeed. After allowing 13 runs in 10 innings while losing his previous two starts, Zito limited Houston to one run and four hits in seven innings to pace the Giants to a 9-1 victory.

"You have to have short-term memory, because of you take the past in the present in this game, as in life as well, things aren't going to go well," Zito said. "You have to treat every day like a new moment."

The Giants triumph was noteworthy on several levels. They extended their winning streak to four games, they completed their first home sweep of Houston since Sept. 27-29, 2002, and they sustained robust hitting without Barry Bonds in the lineup. Molina drove in four runs with a two-run single in the first and a two-run triple in the seventh, complementing two RBIs apiece from Randy Winn and Ray Durham. It all happened before a crowd that included Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who was entertained for several innings by Giants legend Willie Mays.

But this evening was most significant for Zito, the reputed staff ace who had been outperformed recently by everybody else in the rotation. Zito (4-5) regained his equilibrium by heeding Molina's advice.

The contrast was sharp. Last Friday, Zito issued three full-count walks in a row during a dreadful 38-pitch, three-run first inning. This time, Zito retired Craig Biggio on a grounder to shortstop with his opening delivery and struck out Morgan Ensberg on three pitches on his way to an 11-pitch, 1-2-3 first inning.

Zito's lone lapse was Ensberg's 100th career home run leading off the fourth. By then, the Giants (24-22) already led, 3-0.

"The more runs you score, the more comfortable the pitcher gets," Durham said. "If he makes a mistake, he's not haunted by it. I really believe scoring those three runs early for Zito kind of helped him."

The Giants scoring wasn't all that put Zito at ease. He demonstrated his growing comfort at his new home ballpark, improving to 3-0 with a 1.98 ERA in his last four starts there. "It feels more comfortable in this stadium, definitely," the left-hander said. "The first game was kind of strange for me."

Zito helped conclude a pitching effort that limited Houston to three runs and a .181 average (17-for-94) in the series, reflecting the strength of the Giants rotation.

"It's exciting every day to see the next guy throw and see what kind of performance he's going to throw up there," Zito said.

Zito squeezed a rubber ball in his pitching hand as he spoke. Molina revealed that his batterymate jammed his thumb on a bunt play at Colorado on May 12.

"I think that's probably bothering him, but he's out there battling," Molina said. "You have to give him credit."

The hitters also earned credit. Molina perpetuated his wizardry with two outs and runners in scoring position by stroking both his hits in that situation. He's batting .524 (11-for-21) with 18 RBIs under those conditions.

"He's been huge -- big hit after big hit," said Durham, who typically bats one slot ahead of Molina in the Giants lineup. "When I don't get the job done, I can count on him to pick me up. And he has."

Molina's explanation for his two-out effectiveness was simple: "I've been lucky enough to get some pitches up and do something with them."

On Wednesday, Molina and his teammates did plenty.

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.