ATLANTA -- Barry Zito still tops the Major Leagues in losses, but he also might rank among the leaders in a less tangible category: perseverance. Through repeated struggles, including defeats in his first seven starts, a brief banishment to the bullpen and a 6.91 ERA in June, Zito kept striving. His effort in the Giants' 5-0 victory Monday over the Atlanta Braves hinted that he might have bypassed competence on his way to excellence. Zito (7-15) has reached a level of consistency that his ERA doesn't reflect. In the 26 innings he has appeared in over his last four starts, he has allowed runs in only two of them. A five-run third inning Aug. 8 against the Dodgers marred his five-inning outing, and last Wednesday at Houston, he yielded two hits in five shutout innings before the Astros chased him in a six-run sixth.
Those games were bracketed by eight shutout innings against San Diego on Aug. 2 and his performance against the Braves, which concluded the Giants' eight-game trip. Zito limited Atlanta to five hits in seven innings and walked two, ending a stretch of six consecutive starts in which he had walked three or more. Aaron Rowand, who contributed a sacrifice fly to a three-run first inning and a homer in the sixth, expressed respect for Zito's ability to endure adversity. "It's been a roller-coaster ride of a season for him," Rowand said. "But hats off to him. He's done the things he's needed to do to make adjustments. I think that speaks a lot of his character, the kind of person he is, the kind of drive he has to be the best." Said manager Bruce Bochy, "There's no question that he's pitching with so much more confidence than he was earlier in the year." Zito also sounded confident. "I really have a feel for my pitches right now. I just want to keep that going," he said. "I'm not getting caught up in any kind of results. ... I'm just trying to stick with my approach." On multiple occasions, Zito survived innings that conjured memories of some of his recent collapses. Houston's big outburst in his previous start, for example, began with an infield single. This time, nothing mushroomed. Rowand, who dropped two balls he deemed catchable, committed an error by mishandling Omar Infante's soft liner to open the second inning. Zito responded by striking out two of the next three batters. A passed ball by Pablo Sandoval, who otherwise played admirably in his second big league start behind the plate, moved Braves to second and third base with two outs in the third. Up came Chipper Jones, the Majors' leading hitter. Zito retired him on a popup to first base. With two outs in the fifth, Braves pitcher Jorge Campillo doubled (shades of Zito's bases-loaded walk to Houston's Randy Wolf) and Yunel Escobar singled to put runners on the corners. Zito's ex-A's teammate Mark Kotsay grounded into a fielder's choice. Jeff Francoeur received a double leading off the seventh on a drive to left-center that squirted out of Rowand's glove. Zito walked pinch-hitter Greg Norton with two outs and fell behind 3-0 on Escobar but coaxed an inning-ending grounder. "I was really bearing down today on staying aggressive the whole game," Zito said, recalling that he mysteriously lost his focus in Houston. The Giants' offense helped. Every pitcher needs scoring, but Zito's remarkable 97-5 record when his team scores four or more runs reflects his knack for knowing how to win. San Francisco continued to receive a boost from Sandoval, the 22-year-old who delivered a first-inning RBI single and went 2-for-4 in his second consecutive multi-hit game. "He just looks hitterish," Bochy said. "He likes the bat in his hand." Sandoval's defensive aptitude also inspired praise.
"He really impressed me," Zito said. "He's a big guy [5-foot-11, 246 pounds], but he's so athletic."Sandoval returned the compliment. "We make a good couple," he said of himself and Zito. The trip's pair of four-game series ultimately didn't turn out too badly for the Giants, either. By defeating Atlanta thrice, they recorded their first regular-season series win in this city since May 28-30, 1993. Since then, San Francisco had lost 17 series and split three. "We couldn't have had four tougher games in Houston," Bochy said, recalling the consecutive losses the Giants absorbed after taking leads into the bottom of the sixth inning each game. "To bounce back here, these guys showed a lot of resiliency and fight."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.