SAN FRANCISCO -- A Barry Zito curveball has always been a rare breed of the species, known for its spectacular spin down and across the strike zone. Its cunning is in its drastic break, catching its prey in knee-buckling vulnerability.
A Justin Verlander fastball is similarly precocious, but for the opposite reason of its increasing rapidity, often triple-digit carnage that makes its offspeed brethren even more potent, like a pack of pitches in which one distracts and the other kills.
The pitching repertoires of the Giants' Zito and the Tigers' Verlander are about as different as one can find among two accomplished men with a Cy Youngs on their mantles and baseballs in their hands for World Series Game 1. Don't mind the fact that most of Zito's best work was for another team more than a half-decade ago, whereas this was supposed to be Verlander's coronation, the final addition to his growing legacy as the undisputed best pitcher in baseball today.
Yet it was Zito who reigned on this night, working with guile more than power on his way to allowing just one run on six hits and one walk in 5 2/3 innings with three strikeouts, while Verlander faltered and gave up five runs on six hits in four innings, including two of the three home runs hit by San Francisco third baseman Pablo Sandoval.
Those disparate starts propelled the Giants to win Game 1 by an 8-3 score, as the favored Tigers' road map to a World Series title took an unexpected detour.
"He's kind of been our lucky charm," San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy said of Zito, referring to the club's 14-game winning streak in which the veteran left-hander pitched.
It's not that simple, of course. There's nothing simple about throwing mid-80s pitches to a lineup brimming with talent and strength, and Bochy praised his focus and concentration.
It takes studious preparation, to which all Zito's teammates attest he puts in. It takes variation, as his pitch selection demonstrated with nearly equal numbers of fastballs, cutters and curves. It takes tremendous execution, which appeared self-evident by the results.
And maybe most of all it takes confidence.
The Tigers started five hitters, including four right-handers, who slugged more than a baker's dozen of home runs this season, led by Miguel Cabrera's 44. Yet Zito effectively worked both sides of the plate despite the ever-present fear one of them would turn on an inside fastball that really wasn't that fast.
Zito, after all, managed one pitch as fast as 86 miles per hour. Verlander threw changeups and sliders that speed or faster.
But not all of Zito's fastballs were what they appeared, many of them cutting with late movement that allows for more forgiving location.
"The cutter's kind of like the pitch of this generation, you know?" Zito said. "It gives you some leeway. It's a lot easier to throw for strikes than other offspeed pitches. All you're trying to do is miss the barrel, and the cutter's a good pitch for that."
Zito missed many barrels but not many bats. He incurred only five swings and misses from Tigers hitters and never more than one in any inning. (Verlander, meanwhile, got 12 swings and misses in his abbreviated outing.) Then again, Zito made nine starts this season in which hitters whiffed five or fewer times, even winning three of them.
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"He's figured out how to pitch with what he's got," Giants backup catcher Eli Whiteside, who's caught Zito off and on since 2009, said. "A lot of these right-handers you know they're going to sit mostly soft out over the plate, so you've got to keep them honest inside, and he's doing that with his fastball in and his cutter in."
In a sense the outings of Verlander and Zito mimicked their signature pitches. Verlander's start was fast and flammable, which weren't good attributes on this night. "I know I was a little bit out of sync," Verlander said in an assertion echoed by his manager.
"His fastball command was not good," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "He got out of sync, he got on fast forward. He just did not pitch well tonight, it's that simple. But I go back, I want to start by giving the Giant hitters credit."
Zito, on the other hand, threw a curve in Detroit's approach, keeping them off balance with a mixture of pitches.
He threw to the entire spectrum of the strike zone, typically starting right-handers up-and-away and left-handers high-and-tight, and then working down-and-in or out-and-away, depending on the hitter's vantage point. It was a tumbling pitch progression that followed the same diagonal sweep of Zito's curve, as this
"He threw some good curveballs, too, even behind the count," Giants starting catcher Buster Posey said. "I think that curveball doesn't allow the hitter to get locked in on the fastball or the cutter."
The Tigers' trump card was trumped, as the Giants knocked off an invincible starter for the second straight World Series Game 1. Verlander entered tonight's start 3-0 with a 0.74 ERA this postseason, before getting knocked around. Two years ago it was the Rangers' Cliff Lee who entered that World Series Game 1 at 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA before the Giants' lineup battered his pitches for seven runs in 4 2/3 innings.
And the Giants were able to capitalize thanks to Zito's starring, starting role.
"I battled in September to make the postseason roster," Zito said. "The last thing I would have expected at that point was to be starting Game 1. Just the opportunity was just magical."
The fans chanted "Bar-ry!" throughout the game, when he singled in a run in the fourth and especially when he was removed from the game in the sixth.
The journey here was long and arduous, but his departure was anything but, as Zito eschewed his usual between-inning walking exit and instead jogged off the mound, into the dugout and into the win column. The curve he threw at the Tigers' World Series plans was his best one yet.