St. Louis -- Really, there was no reason to believe this could happen. There was no reason to believe that Barry Zito was capable of a night like this. Yes, he won 15 games this year, and yes, his team was 12-0 in the last 12 games he started --- but all the signs leading to Game 5 of the National League Championship Series pointed to a night in St. Louis that would end with a dogpile on the Busch Stadium infield, champagne and hugs in the home clubhouse, and dancing Cardinals fans spilling out onto Clark Avenue.
Instead, late Friday night, there was Barry Zito, at the podium in front of the reporters and cameras after his improbable pitching performance, reflecting on the difficult, and at times miserable, years since he signed the then record (and widely panned) seven-year, $126 million contract with the Giants six years ago. "I tried Twitter a couple years ago," he said, "and it was a pretty devastating experience for me." Everyone in the room laughed. And how could the Giants not laugh now? They were still alive, heading back home, down 3-2 in the series but just two wins away from their second World Series in three years.
Here it was, yet another strange twist in what's been an utterly unpredictable October: Zito, the former Cy Young winner who wasn't even on the playoff roster when the Giants won the World Series in 2010, the pitcher who, at 34, had become a crumbling $126-million fifth starter, saving his team's season by tossing 7 2/3 shutout innings. "He's had his ups and downs as a Giant," said Peter Magowan, the team's former managing partner who signed the lefthander to the jaw-dropping deal in 2006, as he stood in the Giants clubhouse late Friday. "But now we've got a shot at the World Series because of what he did tonight."
Magowan always believed there would be nights like this. On Friday, there was Zito pitching like it was 2002 -- albeit with a fastball that topped 85 mph just once. There were some flashes of the Zito of old -- in the first, he struck out Matt Holliday with his signature looping curveball -- but the lefthander is a different pitcher now, a Jamie Moyer-like craftsman whose fastball averages below 85 mph, a pitcher who relies more on his cutter than his curveball. All night long, Zito kept the baffled Cardinals hitters off-balanced and guessing wrong.
"Batters have a tough time with pitchers that make pitches, and guys that aren't giving too much of the plate and working ahead in the count -- changing speeds off every pitch they have," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. "He kept our guys kind of off balanced. And it looked like our guys started to guess a little bit, trying to anticipate a little bit what he was going to do, and he was one step ahead."
"We needed to be more patient than we were," said Cardinals third baseman David Freese. "He throws heaters in the mid-80s now -- he understands that he has to change speeds and locate, and he did that."
Freese and the Cardinals know that they squandered a golden opportunity to close out a team that has been harder to slay than the zombies from the Walking Dead. Things unraveled for St. Louis in a nightmare fourth inning. For three innings St. Louis starter Lance Lynn was lights out -- "I thought he was as good as we've seen him all season those first three innings," said Matheny. "He was untouchable." But in the fourth Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval started the inning with singles, and after a Buster Posey strikeout, Hunter Pence hit an easy groundball back to the pitcher. Lynn opted to throw the ball to second, and he fired low -- the ball bounced off the bag and into centerfield, and Scutaro scored easily. "I don't mind him being aggressive if he's got the play," Matheny said of Lynn. "[Pete] Kozma was in the right place, he just made a low throw. And if he could do it over again, I'm sure he'd like to take the easy out at first base and then try his luck on [Brandon] Belt."
Lynn was rattled. Brandon Crawford then hit a grounder up the middle for a two run single. And then, in perhaps the most improbable moment of the game, Zito, on his charmed night, laid down a perfect bunt to the left side to score Gregor Blanco. "I'm known for my Arabian horse gallop, as [Brian] Wilson calls it -- just not that fast," Zito said. "To bunt for a hit you've got to be perfect, and fortunately it was there."
A night earlier, after the team's 8-3 loss in Game 4, the Giants clubhouse, packed with reporters and cameras, was quiet as a church, but late Friday night, there was music blaring and players everywhere in the room talking about how they believe that their never-say-die team -- the Giants have now won four straight games when facing elimination, all on the road -- could become only the third in NLCS history to advance to the World Series after falling into a 3-1 deficit. With Ryan Vogelsong (7-4 with a 2.86 ERA at home) and ace Matt Cain lined up for the next two games at AT&T Park, the Giants like their chances.
For San Francisco, and for Barry Zito, how quickly things can change.