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Zito mixes it up to stop Cardinals

Left-hander blended batting-practice fastball with sweeping curve and changeup that defied gravity

Phil Rogers

On Baseball

11:03 PM CDT, October 19, 2012

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ST. LOUIS — If Jamie Moyer was watching Game 5 of the National League Championship Series on Friday night, he must be planning his next comeback.

On the biggest stage of his roller-coaster career, Barry Zito pitched in a way that showed why some scouts recommended giving him $126 million, if there really were any of those. But never mind the history. The thing that mattered was the line in the box score, and it made everyone associated with the Giants giddy.

Like Jeremy Renner's character in "The Hurt Locker,'' Zito pranced confidently into an explosive situation and left without a scratch. He mixed his batting-practice fastball with his sweeping curve and a changeup that defied gravity to deny the Cardinals a celebration on their Busch Stadium turf.

"You have to manage your emotions,'' Zito said. "Staying calm and keeping the game slow around you is probably what we all try to do. If you do that, you have a chance to maximize your talent. I was just focused on slowing things down.''

With a 5-0 victory that was built around four unearned runs courtesy of Lance Lynn's throw that bounced off the second-base bag, the Giants revived their World Series hopes. They trail three games to two but know they won three straight to recover from a 2-0 deficit against the Reds in the NLDS. Now they can bat last in the deciding games at AT&T Park on Sunday and possibly Monday.

On paper, anyway, they seem a better bet the rest of the way than they did Friday.

Zito, who wasn't even on the playoff roster when the Giants won the 2010 World Series, got this start because manager Bruce Bochy pulled Madison Bumgarner from the rotation. They have Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain set for the next two games, but few expected they would last even to Vogelsong's start in Game 6.

Zito hadn't made it through the third inning when he got a start in Cincinnati, that time taking the place of Tim Lincecum in a rotation showing serious tread wear. But he had everything going against the Cardinals, and it was like watching the 49-year-old Moyer pitch for the Rockies last spring before reality struck and a 5.70 ERA prompted his release.

Zito was locked in on Buster Posey's mitt and only rarely missed it beyond the acceptable margin of error. He gave up a pair of doubles — to David Freese in the second and Allen Craig in the fourth — but both times pitched his way around his mistakes. He wound up allowing six hits in 72/3 innings, with six strikeouts and only one walk.

"He was pitching,'' Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "That's what pitching is. You don't have to have 99 on your fastball if you can keep hitters off balance.''

The biggest moment of the game came when Lynn, the Cardinals' starter, grounded to Brandon Crawford for an inning-ending double play in the second. Zito meanwhile was helping himself, most notably when he dropped down a perfect two-out bunt for an RBI single in the Giants' four-run fourth, which was built around Lynn's throwing error.

Zito's fastball maxed out at 86 mph but in his mind he was throwing 99, and the swagger he picked up from two early strikeouts of Matt Holliday seemed to go a long way. It's not like he hasn't had a good season.

This marked the 13th consecutive time the Giants have won a game started by Zito, who was 15-8 in the regular season. He would be hailed for his toughness and his guile if he was a non-roster guy who had pitched his way onto the team. A lot more was expected from him when he signed his contract after the 2006 season, essentially taking the money that previously had been going into Barry Bonds' bank account.

Say this for Zito: He has been scandal-free in his six years in San Francisco. But he has put up more than 10 victories only twice, once led the league in losses and registered a 4.47 ERA.

Some say the signing of Zito had little to do with general manager Brian Sabean and the Giants' baseball staff. Zito, a cerebral pitcher and media darling while starting his career in Oakland, appealed to ownership and team President Larry Baer and became a free agent at the right time, with the franchise across the bay needing a star its fans could adore.

Zito now has had his moment.

If the guys who throw hard do their jobs as well as he did his, we might get to see what Miguel Cabrera can do to an 85-mph fastball. That would be fun.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers