Zito brilliant as Giants close gap

Zito brilliant as Giants close gap

SAN FRANCISCO -- Before Saturday's game against the Rockies, Barry Zito couldn't remember the last time he struck out the side to lead off the game.

Before Saturday, Zito could only tell you that his lone career curtain call came sometime when he was wearing an A's uniform.

Before Saturday, Giants fans probably still questioned the ability of Zito, who has earned mixed reactions from the San Francisco fan base since joining the team in 2007.

All that changed Saturday, though, as fans experienced a night that was of the special sorts.

That much was evident when the Giants lefty exited the game with one out in the ninth inning with a four-run lead to a standing ovation and nonstop chants of "Barry! Barry! Barry!"

"You know," manager Bruce Bochy said, "I had to grab Barry to go out there with them chanting like that. It's good to see. He's done a terrific job all year. He's had a tough time getting runs, but he's pitched great."

That much couldn't be said of the bullpen, which squandered two runs after Zito's exit to make it a 5-3 final score. That's how the story would end, though, as the much-deserving left-hander picked up his ninth win of the season. More importantly, the Giants' victory in front of a sold-out home crowd at AT&T Park narrowed Colorado's lead in the National League Wild Card race to a single game.

The Giants have now taken the first two games of the three-game set -- an advantage Pablo Sandoval admitted he didn't quite picture heading into the game.

The 23-year-old infielder was caught belting the Black Eyed Peas' summer hit "I Gotta Feeling" while slowly making his way up the stairs from the field to the clubhouse before Saturday's game.

For those who have tuned out the song during the past few months, it essentially goes like this: I gotta feeling that tonight's gonna be a good night. That tonight's gonna be a good night.

It's safe to assume most people familiar with said song, including Sandoval, only know those two lines. But the Giants infielder refused to continue after the first three words.

"I don't think it's gonna be a good night," admitted Sandoval, who battled a strained right calf and flu-like symptoms throughout the week. "I'm tired."

Although the singing Kung Fu Panda's voice is not nearly as big as his bat, the tune he was rocking proved to be quite prophetic -- even if he refused to believe it.

A good night it was for Sandoval and the Giants. A very, very good night.

Sandoval crushed his 21st homer of the season in the second inning en route to a 3-for-3 night in support of Zito.

"A lot of good things came out of the game," Bochy said. "Pablo's not 100 percent, but look at what he's doing out there. He changes the lineup with his presence. He's doing what we need him to do right now, providing some power and supplying us runs."

As much as Sandoval's night was noteworthy, Zito's was even bigger. Much bigger.

All the more fitting was the fact Zito entered the ninth inning to the sounds of -- you guessed it -- "I Gotta Feeling" blaring from the ballpark's loudspeakers.

Zito's lone mistake of the game was a homer to Brad Hawpe in the ninth frame. But even the southpaw didn't view the dinger as that much of a gaffe.

"I have to tip my hat to Hawpe," the Giants pitcher said. "That's a pitch I would throw again."

Long ball aside, Zito was nearly untouchable. He threw up zeros for eight frames, extending his scoreless streak to 20 innings -- 14 against the Rockies -- before allowing the ninth-inning blast. The Giants lefty scattered eight hits and one walk while fanning seven.

"He's really bounced back," outfielder Nate Schierholtz said. "He had a rough year or two, and this year it seems like he's got it all together. We haven't given him the greatest run support, but it's nights like tonight where, in a big game, he does his job."

Schierholtz deemed Zito his "old self" after Saturday's performance, bringing to mind the Cy Young Award winner and dominant pitcher the 31 year-old still knows he is.

"It's just been about being aggressive and not getting wrapped up on results," said Zito, who has a 4-2 mark with a 1.92 ERA since the All-Star break. "I'm focusing more on throwing my best stuff out there and seeing what happens."

Eight-plus innings of what Bochy called "good command, good curveball and good location of fastball." That's what happened.

Rare offensive support is also what happened. After Sandoval's homer into McCovey Cove -- the Giants' 50th splash hit -- San Francisco made it 2-0 in the third thanks to a sacrifice fly by Randy Winn.

Juan Uribe added two hits, including an RBI double in a three-run sixth, which also saw a run-scoring triple off the bat of Eli Whiteside against Colorado starter Jason Marquis, who allowed all five runs on nine hits and one walk through six.

It didn't appear Zito needed all that much support, but the bullpen was a different story. Luckily, Brian Wilson took the mound to salvage the win for teammate and roommate Zito while picking up his 32nd save of the season.

"We have to make statements when we're at home," Zito said. "It's something we have to do when we're here because it's our advantage."

That they did, but not enough to deter Rockies manager Jim Tracy, who hopes his team can salvage Sunday's series finale after dropping the first two.

"We got beat, and that's not something you want to see happen," Tracy said. "But I was encouraged by what took place offensively in the ninth inning. To be swinging the bats the way we were for eight innings, and to have the winning run standing at home plate, I think that's extremely encouraging.

"If we'd have gone very, very quietly in the ninth inning, there would have been an awful lot to think about."

Zito, who knows he's his hardest critic, would have had lots to think about as well had he not shut down the Rockies.

"It was imperative I was aggressive out there tonight," he said. "I didn't want to give them any leeway."

Added Bochy: "When Randy Johnson went down, we needed guys to step up, and he's done that. He came through in a big way for us tonight. Definitely a good night all around."

Kung Fu Panda would agree -- even if not through song.

Jane Lee is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.