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Zito shines as Giants walk off winners

Zito shines as Giants walk off winners

SAN FRANCISCO -- Wednesday's ending thrilled the Giants, who rode pinch-hitter Bengie Molina's RBI ground-rule double to a 1-0, 10-inning decision over the San Diego Padres.

But it was the start that San Francisco received, in this game and through its entire homestand, that potentially held greater significance for the rest of the season.

The Giants' starting pitchers exceeded expectations to lead the club to a 4-1 mark. They generated three shutout victories and recorded a 0.52 ERA, which looks like a typographical error until you realize that Matt Cain, Tuesday night's winner over San Diego ace Jake Peavy, was the lone member of the Giants' rotation to allow runs.

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With a staff that includes three Cy Young Award winners and flourishing performers in Cain and Jonathan Sanchez, the Giants believe that they can approach such excellence, if not duplicate it, as the season continues.

"I think these guys can do it. If they get in a good groove, they can surprise a lot of people," Molina said, quickly adding, "It's not a real surprise."

Perhaps not, although Barry Zito's uneven career as a Giant makes his participation in any shutout noteworthy. For the seventh time in 68 starts since joining the Giants before the 2007 season, Zito pitched six or more shutout innings, working seven against the Padres. Moreover, this marked the second occasion in which he achieved this feat at home, where he compiled a 7-16 record and a 5.12 ERA in two seasons and often heard the fans' wrath.

Zito, who trimmed his ERA from 10.00 to 5.63, said that his seven-year, $126 million contract, which invited abuse, no longer serves as a distraction. With rotation mates such as Tim Lincecum and Randy Johnson, pressure to lead San Francisco's pitching has vanished.

"For whatever reason, my focus strayed a little bit here and there in the past," Zito said. Of his unusually warm reception from the crowd, Zito said, "It is nice to show the fans a good performance and get them fired up."

Zito's predecessors fired him up somewhat. After the Giants' disastrous trip to San Diego and Los Angeles in which the starters went 0-5 with a 8.79 ERA, Sanchez began the resurgence by yielding two hits in 6 2/3 innings last Friday against Arizona. Lincecum followed with a five-hit, 13-strikeout gem in eight innings. Then Johnson defeated his former teammates while permitting one hit in seven innings. Cain limited the Padres to two runs in six innings.

"We have a little friendly competition," Zito said. "We want to help the team more than the last guy did."

Zito helped by surrendering six hits, walking none, striking out five and letting just two Padres reach scoring position. Demonstrating the benefits of improved pitching mechanics and a rigorous offseason workout program with closer Brian Wilson, Zito regularly approached 90 mph with his fastball, an improvement of 2-3 mph. The left-hander also commanded his other deliveries, as he proved when he struck out the side in the fourth inning. Brian Giles flailed at a slider, Adrian Gonzalez watched a fastball zip by on the outside corner and Kevin Kouzmanoff missed another slider.

"You can see in his demeanor that he's not uptight or trying to do everything himself," Wilson said. "He knows that he can control only one aspect of the game -- that's throw strikes. Let the defense and offense work by themselves."

The Giants, who have won their opening three home series of the season for the first time since 2003, had little offense to work with against Padres starter Chris Young, who matched Zito's seven shutout innings. San Diego had the best chance to avoid extra innings when Scott Hairston doubled off Bob Howry to lead off the eighth inning and advanced on David Eckstein's sacrifice bunt, but Jeremy Affeldt doused the threat by slipping called third strikes past Giles and Gonzalez.

"No question that saved the game for us," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said.

After Wilson (1-0) pitched the next two innings, the Giants set up their initial last-at-bat victory of the season as Andres Torres singled to right field and stole second base with one out in the 10th off Padres reliever Edwin Moreno (0-2). The Giants gave the speedy Torres the freedom to take off at will.

"[First-base coach Roberto] Kelly told me to take a good jump and go," Torres said.

After pinch-hitter Eugenio Velez struck out, the Padres intentionally walked Fred Lewis to set up a force play around the infield. Molina, batting for Emmanuel Burriss, drove a 2-1 pitch to the left-center-field gap that cleared the wall on a bounce.

Molina, who was rested after having played every inning of the Giants' previous 13 games, was so tired that he didn't even take pregame batting practice. But the team's best clutch hitter couldn't say that he wasn't warned about the possible outcome.

"I told Bengie before it started, 'Get ready to win the game,' Bochy said. "That's a nice bat to have coming off the bench."

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

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