The Giants and Zito, he of the 0-7 record, owned a 3-0 lead against Houston ace Roy Oswalt through five innings. Then everything changed. The Astros pulled even with three runs off Zito in the sixth, his final inning. San Francisco's typically stingy bullpen couldn't hold off the Astros, who scored the tiebreaking run off Vinnie Chulk (0-1) in the seventh before adding three runs off Merkin Valdez and Keiichi Yabu in the eighth.
Meanwhile, the offense that thrived early was throttled late. Oswalt (4-3) regained his ace's form by retiring the final 14 batters he faced, striking out five of the last nine for emphasis.
"Really, we had two different games," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "The first five innings and the last four."
From a larger perspective, Zito's six innings meant the most to the Giants. He allowed seven hits, but the only extra-base hit was a two-run homer by Lance Berkman, currently the universe's hottest hitter. Zito continued to harness the straightforward approach that eluded him before he was sent to the bullpen late last month. He threw first-pitch strikes to 14 of 24 hitters, compared with 10 of 21 last Wednesday at Pittsburgh in his first start since leaving the bullpen.
This all helped Zito, who turns 30 on Tuesday, avoid becoming the first starter to begin a season 0-8 since Baltimore's Mike Boddicker in 1988.
"It's not about me getting wins. It's about the team getting wins," Zito said. "Unfortunately, that didn't happen tonight. But for me to make pitches and be aggressive, those are things that make me feel good and make me feel satisfied out there. The results are out of my control."
Bochy has noticed an encouraging difference in Zito, who threw 65 strikes in 103 pitches.
"To me, he has a good feel for what he's doing out there now," Bochy said. "He's confident. This guy's a standup guy and he wants the ball. He's not out there looking at the record or what's happened. He wants to be out there trying to get a win. That's what you want."
For a while, the Giants appeared destined to help Zito record a long-awaited victory. They jumped ahead with a pair of third-inning runs on Emmanuel Burriss' leadoff bunt single, Zito's sacrifice bunt and doubles by Fred Lewis and Omar Vizquel. Lewis, 3-for-31 with 15 strikeouts in his previous nine games, emerged from his funk with a 2-for-4 evening that included a neat sliding catch on Brad Ausmus' liner in the fifth inning.
John Bowker delivered his fourth homer of the season with one out in the fourth inning. Little did the Giants know that this would be Oswalt's final lapse.
Hunter Pence and Mark Loretta singled to open the Astros' sixth-inning resurgence. After Miguel Tejada's sacrifice fly scored Pence, Berkman, the National League's reigning Player of the Week, drilled a 3-1 changeup into the left-center-field stands for his 13th homer of the season, tying the score.
Asked if he felt any trepidation about facing the torrid Berkman in that situation, Zito replied, "No. You just have to make pitches. A 3-1 changeup, not a bad selection, if you get it down. It was on the black, away. It was just up."
Berkman sensed that the Astros eventually would strike.
"I think we had some opportunities earlier that we didn't capitalize on," said Berkman, who's batting .605 (26-for-43) during an 11-game hitting streak. "But you feel pretty good about whenever you can tie that game up, because Roy's not going to give up much more than three usually. When we were able to come back with those three runs, I felt like we had a pretty good chance to win the game."
Those chances looked better after Jose Cruz Jr. singled to christen the seventh against Chulk, who was unscored upon in eight of his previous nine appearances. Cruz sped to third on Ausmus' single and scored on Pence's fly to right.
Berkman helped pad Houston's lead by lashing his third hit, an eighth-inning double, and scoring on Cruz's single.
With the bases loaded, Yabu fired a wild pickoff throw past first base to chase home two more runs.
"I think he saw the guy wandering off first base and thought he had an easy out," Bochy said of Yabu. "There was no play on or anything. He just got sloppy there."