ST. LOUIS — Barry Zito is ungodly rich, and his family will want for nothing for generations. He is married to a former beauty queen. He can play the guitar. A master chef? A gifted sculptor? No. But Zito’s life would seem to have been touched by something otherworldly.
His baseball career, though, hasn’t gone exactly as planned. On Friday night, he found himself on the mound at Busch Stadium, his team’s season at stake. Few would have been surprised if he had failed, because the last time the San Francisco Giants were in the postseason, they left him off the roster and won the World Series anyway.
What Zito did, then, will serve as a salve, not to mention extend the season. Over 72 / 3 brilliant innings, Zito baffled the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, delivering a 5-0 victory that staved off the offseason and sent the series back to San Francisco, where the Giants still face a three-games-to-two deficit in Sunday’s Game 6.
“He’s been through a lot, I know,” Giants Manager Bruce Bochy said. “. . . But this guy, he is some kind of tough.”
You want to bet against the Giants now? They have won four straight elimination games this postseason — three in the division series against Cincinnati, and the Zito-powered effort Friday against the Cardinals.
“Just get back home,” said San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford, who delivered a key two-run single. “Get one more day.”
They have one more day because of Zito, who somehow came up with the kind of performance he used to provide with regularity, back a decade ago, when he won 23 games for Oakland as a 24-year-old. For that Zito, Friday’s results — six harmless hits, 14 of his final 16 hitters retired, six strikeouts against one walk — would have seemed the norm. And one stat — the fact that the Giants won for the 13th straight time when Zito started — would have fit right in with his old, dominant days.
But watch Friday’s game, and it’s apparent this is a man who has reshaped how he pitches. Yes, it took him till the sixth year of the seven-season, $126 million contract that seems to define him, and it took that postseason snub two years ago. “It was certainly a huge blow, just personally,” he said of 2010.
But the Giants say he handled it professionally, and he won 15 games this regular season, his first winning campaign for San Francisco. On Friday, he scrambled the Cardinals’ brains by throwing his fastball at 85 mph, yet retiring them easily.
“That’s what pitching is,” Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny said. “You don’t have to have 99 [mph] on your fastball if you can locate and keep hitters off-balance.”
Zito and a one-inning undoing by his counterpart, Cardinals right-hander Lance Lynn, quieted the Busch Stadium crowd of 47,075 and put the series in an interesting spot. The Giants now have right-hander Ryan Vogelsong, who beat the Cardinals with seven innings of one-run ball earlier in the series, set for Game 6. Should they survive then, they have Matt Cain, their de facto ace, for the decisive Game 7.
“We’re just excited we’re going home and still playing ball at this point,” Bochy said.
They are playing ball because of Zito, because the Giants made four spectacular defensive plays behind him — one each from right fielder Hunter Pence, third baseman Pablo Sandoval, second baseman Marco Scutaro and center fielder Angel Pagan — and because Lynn couldn’t make a solid throw at a pivotal moment.
In the fourth inning of a scoreless game, the Giants had runners at the corners with one out. Pence bounced a ball back to Lynn, who turned to throw to second. His intention: Start an inning-ending play.
But when Lynn turned to fire, shortstop Pete Kozma wasn’t yet near the bag. Lynn threw anyway. The ball hit the unoccupied base and skipped into center.
“He gets an out at first base,” Matheny said, “you’re sitting there with two outs, second and third, and he gets a popup on the next guy.”
Instead, a run scored, and the inning was set up. Lynn issued a two-out walk, then Crawford’s two-run single. When Zito cleverly dropped a bunt down the third base line for an RBI single, the Giants went up 4-0, and Lynn’s night was over.
Zito’s, though, was just beginning. After the second, when he deftly worked out of a second-and-third, no-out jam, he didn’t allow more than one runner in an inning. His slow curveball had bite, and it set up that fastball, a juicy steak just hanging there.
“That high fastball of his, I know it’s not fast,” pitching coach Dave Righetti said. “But he has a way of making guys pop it up or miss it.”
When Bochy finally came to take the ball in the eighth, Zito jogged off the mound to the dugout, where a swarm of grateful, admiring teammates met him.
“We thought he could provide that leadership, and also be the sort of focus of the team, the pitching staff,” said Peter Magowan, the former managing partner of the Giants, who helped sign Zito. “It didn’t work out as anybody had hoped, I’m sure as he had hoped, as we had hoped.”
For one night, it worked out just fine. In the visiting clubhouse afterward, music thumped through the speakers. Grown men made their way to Zito’s locker for emphatic embraces. How does this fit in with the journey?
“It’s hard to sum it up in one answer,” Zito said. “It’s just a plethora of things that I’ve done and gone through here with the Giants.”
Barry Zito’s baseball life might not be perfect. But Friday night, it was pretty darn good.