Saturday, October 20, 2012

The San Francisco Giants defeated the St Louis Cardinals, 5-0, at Busch Stadium in St Louis last night, and thereby remained alive in the National League Championship Series. The Giants have cut the Cardinals' series lead to 3-2, and have ensured the remaining games will be played back at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Barry Zito pitched the game of his life last night, and should the Giants come back and win this series, Game Five will be remembered as the much-criticized lefthander's moment of personal redemption. Regardless of how the series turns out, Zito's eight innings of five-hit shutout ball stand as the zenith of his checkered San Francisco career. Facing his team's elimination, pitching in a park and against a lineup that has given him trouble throughout the years, Zito worked his way out of two early jams and got better as the game went on. By the time Bruce Bochy came out to relieve him with two out in the eighth, Zito had the Cardinals swinging and missing at everything he threw, and after 115 pitches the only opponent he couldn't defeat was simple fatigue.

For the third time in this series, the fourth inning proved a fount of four runs for San Francisco, and for the second time those four runs were enough. St Louis starter Lance Lynn had fanned five through three, but surrendered singles to Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval to start the fourth. Lynn recovered to strike out Buster Posey, and up came Hunter Pence. Save for Wednesday's solo homer, Pence has been a boat-anchor for the Giants' NLCS offense, and true to form he tapped a meek comebacker, a perfect rally-killing double-play ball, to the left side of the mound. Lynn grabbed it quickly, wheeled and threw a strike to second base. Literally. Shortstop Pete Kozma was late arriving, and the ball struck the bag itself and ricocheted high in the air and out to right-center as Scutaro scored the game's first run. With Giants at first and third, Lynn got Brandon Belt to pop up, but the error clearly was bothering him. Gregor Blanco walked on four pitches to load 'em up, and Brandon Crawford worked the count full, then singled up the middle for two runs. That brought up Zito, not now, then, or ever known as a hitter. Barry can bunt, though, and he dropped a beauty up the third-base line. Sandoval came home on the safety squeeze as David Freese, caught flat-footed by the unexpected bunt, threw late and wide up the first-base line.

Allen Craig's leadoff double in the Cardinals' fourth was St Louis' last threat. Zito retired the next three batters without a ball being hit out of the infield, and over the next three innings he put that dangerous, right-handed-heavy lineup to sleep. Santiago Casilla, for one batter, and Sergio Romo, for the ninth, finished the task, and Sandoval belted his second homer of the series in the eighth to complete the scoring. For Zito, the moment of truth had come much earlier. He had stranded Carlos Beltran in the first, but in the second Yadier Molina singled and Freese doubled to put the Giants into baseball's toughest defensive situation: runners at second and third, nobody out. Descalso, who's been feasting on these kind of opportunities lately, waved at an up-and-in 2-2 fastball for the first out, and perhaps the key out of the game. Zito then intentionally walked Kozma-- the only base on balls Barry gave up all night-- and got Lynn on a 6-4-3 double play. Giants fans from Cape Mendocino to Tybee Island expelled a huge sigh of relief; Barry was gonna be all right after all. And he was.

Had anyone come up to us back in April and suggested the Giants' World Series hopes would depend upon Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong, he'd have been sent on his way with an indulgent pat on the head and a couple of bucks toward the next bottle of "Mad Dog." Yet there it is. Barry Z's apotheosis has sent the NLCS back to San Francisco, and Ryan will take the hill at 4:30 PM PDT (7:30 EDT) on Sunday night, looking to draw the series even. The Giants have taken the first step toward doing to the Cardinals what they already did to the Reds, and regardless of what they say, the defending world champions know their best chance to put this thing away evaporated into the vapor last night, like a confused eighth-place hitter flailing helplessly at one of Barry Zito's big breaking curveballs.

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