ST. LOUIS -- When San Francisco reliever Santiago Casilla obtained the last out of the eighth inning in NLCS Game 5 last night -- officially closing the book on one of the most unexpected starting pitching lines in the postseason since Bob Wolcott for the 1995 Mariners, Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti walked over to Barry Zito in the dugout. Zito was busy writing in his notebook, taking time to jot down a few last observances to file away for the next time he might face St. Louis hitters. And then Righetti did not just shake his hand. He held him in a warm embrace.
"I'm just so happy for him," Righetti said after the game, still a bit misty-eyed about what was the greatest game Zito ever pitched in his rocky six years as a Giant. "Most people can take losses and they go home and it's gone. With Barry, because of the spotlight and the criticism, every loss hung on him. I can't think of anyone who had to go through what he went through -- all in the same place, same team -- and come out of it on the other side like this. In New York and other places, you'd be run out by now. I can't think of another story like this one. Can you?"
Well, actually, no -- not with this kind of kicker. In a win-or-go-home game for the Giants, Zito gave them 7 2/3 shutout innings while throwing the most pitches he has thrown in a game in more than two years. He kicked in an RBI bunt. The Giants won, 5-0. He personally saved their season -- this from a guy who after signing a seven-year, $126 million deal went 43-61 from 2007-11 (only three pitchers lost more games in that time) and was so lost the Giants left him off their roster through all three rounds of their championship run in 2010. Zito never pouted, never complained, never offered excuses.
"The guy showed up every day and pitched his heart out in simulated games," Righetti said of that bittersweet 2010 postseason. "He did it like a professional."
Game 5 was the real deal, with the assignment made all the more difficult by a red-hot Cardinals lineup. But Zito pitched with such an inner calm it seemed as if this was a movie he already had seen. The outcome seemed known before it started. It was the 402nd start of his career, and yet he knew soon after the game where it ranked in his career.
"This was probably the biggest one for me," Zito said.
Zito, 34, went 15-8 in this redemptive season. And now, with Zito oozing karma, the Giants are 13-0 in the last 13 times he takes the ball.
The improbability of his comeback is outdone only by how he does it. There is a highway, Texas 130, that will open next month between San Antonio and Austin. The speed limit will be 85 mph. Zito threw 117 pitches last night and only two of them exceeded the highest posted speed limit in America; his best bullets were clocked at 86 mph, nothing close to even stirring a bored Texas trooper.
What Zito can do is spin the ball with such precision and with such different speeds -- cutters, changes, looping curves, sharp curves; the whole kitchen sink of junk -- that when he throws what looks like a batting practice fastball at the top of the zone hitters swing and miss at it as if it arrives at triple digits.
"You've got to try to lay off the high fastball," Cardinals second baseman Daniel Descalso said. "We chased a little bit."
The windfall of money for Zito represented the downside of free agency -- that an accomplished player sheds the roots of his original team (in this case, Oakland) and becomes defined by the money he makes, not how he earned it. One twenty-six for Zito became what 511 was for Cy Young, his definitive number.
But for one night, Zito was young and unbound again. The ball behaved under all of his commands. The Cardinals skulked back to their dugout, heads down and shaking, wondering how they possibly could have missed another 84 mph fastball. And Zito would stand there, a calm king of the hill, sometimes talking to himself without even being aware of what he was saying, staying focused, staying, as he likes to say, in that tiny little space from pitch to pitch, moment to moment.
The sky was clear and the night was pure. It was just Zito and the baseball again. The money and the losses were gone for this night. It was the most meaningful game he ever threw. It was a game he will take to his grave.
Zito probably made as much postseason history after the game as he did during it, becoming the first player in recorded history to conduct his postgame news conference in a blue fedora and use the word "plethora." Just for fun, here are some other ways to appreciate the zen of Zito:
- He became the first Giants pitcher to begin a postseason shutout and get an RBI in the same game.
- These are Little League games, when the big kid dominates the other team by himself. Over the past 30 seasons, only four pitchers threw more than seven innings in a postseason team shutout and knocked in a run: Zito, Roy Halladay (2010 NLDS), Jeff Suppan (2006 NLCS) and Orel Hershiser (1988 World Series and NLCS).
- How rare was his bunt hit? Zito is an awful hitter. He is a career .097 hitter. Only two active pitchers with 300 at-bats are worse: Miguel Batista and Aaron Harang. He never before had bunted for a hit. "I'm not known for my Arabian horse gallop, as [Brian] Wilson calls it," he said.
- Zito has more RBI this postseason than Alex Rodriguez.
- Zito maxed out at 86 mph -- on two pitches.
- He threw 117 pitches -- the most in 58 games since Aug. 6, 2010.
- Of his 117 pitches, 79 of them were 83 miles an hour or slower.
- He threw one pitch at 69 mph, then hit every stop between 71 and 86 mph inclusive.
- There were 51 lefthanded pitchers who started a game against the Cardinals this year entering Game 5. Only 12 of them came out of it with a win. Only three of them did so by throwing or starting a shutout (Gio Gonzalez, Johan Santana and Clayton Kershaw). And now, improbably, you have Zito, zen master of the best hitting lineup in the league.
Cardinals starter Lance Lynn checked out of the game early -- two outs in the fourth -- but his postgame answers to questions about his outing were even more abbreviated. He did deviate from his clipped responses enough to explain his key errant throw to second base, which hit the bag, after fielding a topped ball off the bat of Hunter Pence with runners at first and second and one out.
"Trying to get two to get out of the inning," he said. "You're looking for two all the way."
Well, actually, no. There is no way the Cardinals are turning two on the ball with Pence running. Indeed, middle infielders Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso were late getting to the bag because they knew the proper play for Lynn was to get the out at first base. The ball carried Lynn in the direction of first. With one out, the proper play is to take the routine out where the ball takes you -- to Lynn's glove side, the easy play is to first, not to spin around and lead a moving infielder -- and then get back on the mound and go get the third out.
"With Pence running, the ball wasn't hit hard enough to turn two," Descalso said.
It was a poor throw by Lynn, but it was a worse decision -- and one he still didn't realize after the game.
The most impressive pitcher in this NLCS this side of Zito is a 22-year-old rookie who was the 639th pick of the draft just three years ago and signed for $65,000. The next good swing the Giants get off Cardinals righthander Trevor Rosenthal will be their first. In 6 2/3 postseason innings, Rosenthal has allowed one hit, one walk and no runs while striking out 11.
Signed out of the Royals' backyard at Cowley County Community College in Kansas, Rosenthal was blessed by not having too much velocity too soon. He has grown into his velocity as he matured, with what was a low 90s heater now reaching the upper 90s. Rosenthal has shot past former No. 1 pick Shelby Miller in the Cards' pecking order, and though he has provided shutdown relief this postseason, still profiles as a potential No. 2 starter.
The Giants are now 4-0 in elimination games this postseason -- all on the road and half of them with Zito starting. They did manage to get the series back to San Francisco and have Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain lined up, but let's not jump the gun just yet and start assigning the most overused October cliché of them all, momentum, to the Giants. They don't start Game 6 with a 5-0 lead, for instance.
Pick any number that you want: San Francisco is 1-3 at home this postseason. The Cardinals are 9-1 in the past two postseasons after a loss. Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals' Game 2 loser, has started 17 games in his postseason career without his team ever losing two in a row when he takes the ball. Home teams are 14-17 this postseason. The Giants are 2-0 when Vogelsong starts this postseason.
None of it truly matters. This deep into a best-of-seven series, every inning is a battle unto itself. The Giants just sent Cain, Tim Lincecum and Zito to the mound in St. Louis and won once. So enjoy whatever comes next. As Zito reminded us, what is so beautiful about baseball is that all things are possible.