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MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Zito exceeds expectations with sensational start

Castro: Zito's stellar start exceeds expectations

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Zito exceeds expectations with sensational start

MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

ST. LOUIS -- Having your $126 million arm on the mound in an elimination effort is one of those things that sounds good in theory, looks good on paper.

But of course we knew better about Barry Zito. We knew about the struggles to live up to the gargantuan terms of that deal. We knew the torture that can come when people look at you and see nothing but dollar signs attached to subpar statistics.

At that point, you are not a human being in the minds of the masses; you are the living embodiment of all that is wrong with free-agent forays, incomprehensible investments in unpredictable elements.

NLCS

Oh, sure, Zito was better this season, and he had the 15-8 record to show for it. But he also had the fifth-highest run-support average among National League starters, so, you know, the margin for error was not particularly slim, and his ballpark-adjusted ERA was still below the league average.

I guess what I'm saying is that if you caught the Giants' decision-makers -- or their fans -- in an honest moment going into the season and asked them to rank which of their starting options they'd like to have on the mound in a must-win game in October, Zito would rank on that list about where he'd rank if you asked them to list their starters alphabetically by last name.

You get the idea.

But we are in an environment where substance trumps statistics, where reality is never in line with reason. And we are, therefore, in an NL Championship Series in which Zito just rescued the Giants' season with 7 2/3 shutout innings in a 5-0 victory in Game 5 on Friday night at Busch Stadium -- easily his best performance in their uniform and arguably the best performance of his career.

"Pretty good for an Italian boy," said pitching coach Dave Righetti, and it takes one to know one.

This, indeed, was a "buona sera" for San Francisco -- and Joe DiMaggio's domain is precisely where this series is shifting for Game 6.

The Giants love their outlook for Game 6 and, if they force it, Game 7. Because now they've got a rested Ryan Vogelsong, coming off a splendid start in Game 2, and staff ace Matt Cain on tap to potentially send them to the World Series.

To get to that point, though, they needed Zito to do what Tim Lincecum could not -- exceed expectation, plain and simple.

The hope in the Giants' dugout before Game 5 was that maybe Zito could get them through six, limit the damage done to him by a Cardinals lineup prone to torching lefties, prevent Bruce Bochy from having to turn to a shaky Madison Bumgarner in long relief, keep it close enough that the Giants' bats and bullpen arms could deliver late.

Barry impressive
Fewest earned runs allowed by Barry Zito in a postseason start
Game Date Opp. IP H ER Res.
NLCS 5 10/19/12 Stl. 7 2/3 6 0 5-0 W
ALDS 1 10/3/06 Min. 8 4 1 3-2 W
ALDS 2 10/2/03 Bos. 7 5 1 5-1 W
ALDS 3 10/13/01 NYY 8 2 1 1-0 L
ALDS 4 10/7/00 NYY 5 2/3 7 1 11-1 W

Well, suffice to say, Zito gave the Giants much more than that. He had five pitches working for him, and his ability to change speeds, work out of early trouble and generally confound the Cardinals meant just six hits allowed with a walk and six strikeouts.

"That's what pitching is," Cards manager Mike Matheny said. "You don't have to have 99 [mph] on your fastball if you can locate and keep hitters off-balance."

Zito doesn't hit 99. Heck, he doesn't even hit 89. You could call his stuff slop if not for the sophistication with which he delivered it. The tell-tale sign was his ability to get the Cards to swing and miss at the high "heat" (in this case, a fastball ringing in around 84 mph), because this was an indication of just how well his trademark curveball was working.

"My fastball is set up by my offspeed, that's no secret," Zito said. "So if I can command the fastball to both sides of the plate and throw most of my offspeed for strikes, I'll get them to miss the barrel, and that's what I'm looking for."

This was more than the Giants were looking for, certainly more than they could have asked for. Anybody who said they saw it coming might be stretching the truth a tad, though Righetti did say that Zito had a peculiar sense of calm about him pregame.

"I'm not sure why," Righetti said. "He wasn't antsy, he was relaxed. To me, I felt like he was going to do fine. And then he carried it out there."

Perhaps it was all that social media mojo on his side -- the #RallyZito hashtag trending in the "City By the Bay." Then again, Zito gave up Twitter a couple years ago, too traumatized by the teasing and testy tweets he'd receive about being an overpaid outcast.

It is indisputable that we tend to judge our athletes by the contracts that bear their name, and Zito knows this all too well.

"You can lose games, and, if nobody's paying attention, you can kind of go home, or whatever," Righetti said. "But obviously, folks have been paying attention to him for quite some time. ... It's not going to go away, so you end up living with it and learning how to make it your friend."

Zito had plenty of friends on the defensive side of things. Pablo Sandoval, Marco Scutaro and Angel Pagan all made sensational stops. And if you want to see pure joy personified, seek out the video of Zito's reaction to Hunter Pence's sliding basket catch to rob Pete Kozma in the fifth.

This night, though, was all about Zito rising to the occasion to dispel any doubts. Two years ago, he was famously left off the postseason roster, and the Giants scurried off to a World Series title without him. Now, their shot at the Series would have been cut short if not for his efforts.

Can one game -- one unbelievable effort on a daunting stage -- repair a reputation? Well, we'll see how that all unfolds. But one stellar start can, in this case, save a season, and, the Giants hope, change the scope of a series.

The Italian boy did all right for himself and his team.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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