Together, he and they punched out the Cardinals, 5-0, and punched their National League Championship Series tickets back to AT&T Park."He's throwing the ball so well, so you want to do everything for him, play your heart out for him," said third baseman Pablo Sandoval, responsible for one of the outstanding fielding plays behind Zito. "You want to take care of everything that can happen so he can win the game." Sandoval's quick reaction to and catch of Allen Craig's foul line drive with a man on and two outs in the first inning led off the defensive parade. followed by ... ... Heck, let's just allow the beneficiary to list and rank them. "Yeah, well, I don't know if I can rank them," Zito said, "but there are four that stand out in my mind. Panda making that diving catch on the cutter into Allen Craig was awesome. "Then Hunter [Pence's] basket sliding catch, which was just a testament to his athletic ability, incredible." In the fifth inning, leadoff batter Pete Kozma lifted a drifting shallow fly about 15 feet off the right-field line. Pence accelerated to the ball and lowered himself to make the rare sliding quasi-basket catch. "It was a little more windy that I thought," said Pence, setting the stage. "At first, when the ball was hit, I felt like it was gonna be an infield ball and I was just kind of running to back up. "Then I realized it was blowing away from [second baseman Marco] Scutaro, so I began to run it down. When you're running like that, the ball kind of bounces in your eyes, so I kind of ran past it and reached back, and caught it between my hand and my glove." Continued Zito, "Scutaro making that play on [pinch-hitter Shane] Robinson on the curveball, in the four-hole, that was awesome." Still the fifth inning -- in fact, immediately after Pence's grab -- the right-handed-hitting Robinson sliced a ball into the hole, which Scutaro grabbed on the outfield grass. He then spun and jumped upright and released a perfect throw to first base to get Robinson by several steps. "Those guys are very good," said Scutaro, meaning the St. Louis guys, "so we tried to play perfect so they wouldn't get any momentum. Whatever they did, every ball they hit, we tried to make good plays -- that way, they wouldn't get any momentum going." Pence was even more blown away by that play than was the pitcher it benefited. "I've played a lot of right field," Pence said, meaning he had played behind a lot of second basemen, "and I don't think I've ever seen that play made. Full speed, you can't even explain how difficult that play was. How far he had to go, how he spun and threw the ball, and threw a strike. I don't know how his body did that. I've never seen that done before." And finally, "[Angel] Pagan, whose defense tends to spoil us because he's making diving plays out there like that once every two or three games," said Zito, reaching the end of his list. Seventh inning, one out, Zito was at the end of his rope that would be gone the next inning. David Freese hit a one-out liner to the wrong place, center field, where Pagan sprinted in and slid under the ball for a snowcone catch. "They were all huge," summed up Zito. "And I think in the postseason, every pitch is huge. So the boys definitely picked me up tonight." Back at ya, the boys were saying. "All his pitches were working tonight," Scutaro said. "The curve was good, as always. Fastball, very good command. Backdoor cutter, change ... he had everything working. So we played good 'D.'" That is easy to do behind Zito, said shortstop Brandon Crawford, the hitting hero who had no spectacular plays, but handled three ordinary ones flawlessly, including starting the double play that quieted a bases-loaded mess in the second. "As infielders, we are able to cheat a little bit, because we know he'll locate his pitches," Crawford said. "When the call is for a fastball away, we know it'll get hit the other way. When he's locating the way he was tonight, it's a lot easier to play defense behind him." And with this caliber of defense, it's a lot easier to win. Everyone benefits, mutually.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less