11:42 PM CDT, October 18, 2012
ST. LOUIS — Six years.
That's how long it has been since Barry Zito has pitched the kind of game he's going to need Friday night, and he hasn't been cryogenically frozen in the interim. He has been getting older, losing velocity off his fastball and sharpness off the break of his once-maddening curveball.
So good luck on that, fellow.
At least the Giants are betting what's left of their World Series dreams on a guy who previously has stood up to opponents in a crazy playoff atmosphere. Busch Stadium is certainly going to be that with the Cardinals on the threshold of back-to-back trips to the World Series.
Thanks to the Cardinals' 8-3 victory Thursday night, Zito will face Lance Lynn with the Cardinals leading the Giants three games to one in the National League Championship Series and the city pretty much counting on a weekend to celebrate before considering how to stop Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera.
Can Zito play the role of buzz-killer?
"I'm excited to go out there and have some fun,'' he said. "I love playing on this field. It's a good team. It's a good challenge.''
Zito, largely a disappointment since signing a $126 million contract, wasn't on the 25-man roster when the Giants rode the pitching of Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner to a World Series championship in 2010. He considers a 2006 division series start against the Twins in Minnesota the best he has pitched in the postseason. It was at the Metrodome, and you could have used earplugs as he worked into the ninth inning to beat Johan Santana 3-2.
"I just remember how loud it was,'' he said. "The roof was on at the Metrodome, obviously, and it was 55,000 people. And it was just fun.''
Zito pitched his way back into the postseason by going 15-8 with a 4.15 ERA during the regular season. But he lasted only 22/3 innings when he started Game 4 of the NLDS against the Reds in Cincinnati, needing to be bailed out by his teammates with the Giants on the verge of elimination.
He would love nothing better than finding a way to shut down the Cardinals, who have won 19 of their last 26 games, including a wild-card playoff against the Braves in Atlanta and a decisive Game 5 against the Nationals in Washington. If he could trigger a turnaround, he could be remembered as something other than the highest-paid fifth starter in history.
Good luck turning this tide.
"They do have something going, no getting around that,'' Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "What they did last year, what they've done this year. It's not over. We've been here before.''
The Cardinals had all the icons working for them Thursday. The Clydesdales were on the track before the game, pulling the red wagon. Stan Musial was in a golf cart, following behind the horses and waving to the 47,062 in the stands. And the hitters Mark McGwire coaches were coming through just about every time it was needed.
Musial even made an impact on the Cardinals' starting pitcher, Adam Wainwright.
"I stopped my warmups and applauded Stan the Man,'' Wainwright said. "He's such a big man for St. Louis baseball.''
With Matt Carpenter replacing the sore-kneed Carlos Beltran in the No. 2 spot, a two-run first inning kept Lincecum from getting ideas in his head. The rout was on in the middle innings, with the Cardinals pounding Lincecum and the Giants' bullpen, which had been a key in their comeback against the Reds. The biggest blows were Yadier Molina's two-run single, ending Lincecum's night in the fifth, and Jon Jay's two-run triple off Jose Mijares in the sixth.
"He just didn't have his good command early,'' Bochy said. "He made a good adjustment and started getting his pitches where he wanted. He got us to the fifth inning in a 2-1 ballgame.''
This marked the sixth time in 10 postseason games that the Cardinals have scored at least six runs. The other nine playoff teams have only nine times in 50 tries.
There's a trend here, and it's one that the Tigers' starting rotation would test in the World Series. The Tigers have given up only 17 runs in nine postseason games, including six in the ALCS sweep of the Yankees.
But shame on the Cardinals if they get caught looking ahead. They have pulled the rug out from under the Phillies, Rangers and Nationals the last two Octobers, so it seems unlikely that they're going to start sleepwalking.
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