ST. LOUIS The images kept popping up over the Internet, aslegions of fans put aside their social media identities to embrace a new one.
There were avatars of Barry Zito with a 1970s-era moustache.Zito with his blue-steel modeling gaze. Wedding Zito. Smiling Zito. Maniacallysmiling Zito. Possessed Zito. Chill Zito. Guitar-strumming Zito.Sprawled-in-the-grass Zito. Shirtless Zito. Bed head Zito. Toy pooch-carryingZito. And floating Zito heads photoshopped into one ridiculous context afteranother. (On the back of a unicorn, for example, riding on a beam of rainbows.)
It was the RallyZito movement in full flower, and it spoketo more than the Giants dire set of circumstances as they entered Game 5 ofthe NLCS Friday night.
The Giants were one loss from getting shot down. And theyhanded the baseball to their easiest target of all.
Be honest. Part of the reason the Zito movement became anational sensation on Twitter is because there are just well, binders andbinders full of tremendous, ridiculous Zito photos out there. Thats part ofwhat made him such an easy mark. He was never afraid to be an individual in asport that demands conformity. Tallest-nail-and-hammer kind of stuff.
But after so much derision and disappointment in his sixyears in a Giants uniform, there was no snickering over Zitos performance atBusch Stadium. No humiliation, either.
With a seasons labor at stake, Zito was nails, all right.
BAGGS' INSTANT REPLAY: Zito saves season, Giants force Game 6
He took a shutout into the eighth inning and took the NLCSback to China Basin, spotting all manner of strikes to spin outs in a 5-0victory that prevented the St. Louis Cardinals from grabbing a gonfalon that remains very much unclaimed.
Its hard to sum it up in one answer, said Zito, asked toreflect on a six-year history that included a playoff roster cold shoulder in2010, a banishment to the disabled list last season and so many shots taken athis 126 million contract.
Its just a plethora of things Ive done and gone throughhere with the Giants. But the most important thing was to come out and giveeverything Ive got and let it play out. Thats what happened tonight.
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Zito will not fire up Twitter to see the response.
I tried Twitter a couple of years ago, and it was a prettydevastating experience for me, he said. I learned not to check the inbox.(But) Im excited that the fans are fired up. And theyre going to bring allthat momentum into the stadium these next two games here. Im just happy thefans get to see us back at AT&T Park.
Like a hothouse tomato plant, Zito requires specificconditions to thrive:
Run support. Surehanded defense. And a plate umpire who willlet him color just a bit outside the lines.
There was a cold snap in the air Friday night, but theconditions couldnt have been toastier for Zito, who kept a steady beat intothe eighth inning to send the Giants home with a pulse.
He had a better tempo than his NLDS start at Cincinnati,when he had good stuff but found himself rushing through his motion. He wasntgetting calls on the corners, either.
This time, he did. Umpire Ted Barrett, whom you may rememberfrom his work behind the plate for Matt Cains perfect game, gave Zito calls onthe outer periphery. And the left-hander did his own work to expand the zonefrom top to bottom.
We leave it once again to Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, a majorleague catcher not long ago, to provide the synopsis:
He was pitching. He was raising eye level. He was in thetop of the zone, just above, on the edges, just off. He was moving in and out,back and forth. He was taking speeds off his breaking ball and changeup. Thatswhat pitching is. You dont have to have 99 on your fastball if you can locateand keep hitters off balance.
And we never, never did get into a good groove. It lookedlike we started to guess a little bit, tried to anticipate what he was going todo. He was one step ahead.
He was a step ahead of his teammates, too. Zito must haveshaken off catcher Buster Posey three dozen times, and thats not a bad thing.It means he knew exactly what pitch he wanted to every hitter, and in everycount, and he wasnt going to default into whatever mode.
He executed so well that 84 mph up in the zone became aweapon instead of a weakness.
My fastball is set up by my offspeed, thats no secret,Zito said. So if I can command my fastball to both sides of the plate andthrow most of my offspeed for strikes, Ill get them to miss the barrel. Thatswhat Im going for.
He surprised his teammates again in the fourth inning, afterBrandon Crawfords huge, two-out, full-count single up the middle drove in apair of runs to give the Giants a 3-0 lead.
Zito saw third baseman David Freese playing even with thebag. It was a rare moment of inattention for a team that plays with suchsmarts.
Zito stuck out his bat and poked his bunt down the line.
Gregor Blanco, leading off third base, didnt expect it. TimFlannery, hands on knees in the third base coaching box, was surprised, too.
Shocked, Flannery said. We work on it. We talk about it.But he did that all on his own. It was beautiful brilliant.
Said Blanco: I was thinking, maybe, ball in the dirt, Ivegot to be ready. But I wasnt expecting that. It was awesome, unbelievable.Thats what I told him: Awesome! Awesome! Youve got to do it again!
Freese had almost no shot to throw out Zito, even though the pitcheris known for my Arabian horse gallop, as Brian Wilson describes it.
Just not that fast, Zito said. To bunt for a hit, youvegot to be perfect, and fortunately it was there.
The bunt single scored Blanco to give the Giants a 4-0 lead,and everyone knows what happens when Zito gets four runs of support. He was125-7 in his career, and 40-3 as a Giant.
As for the defense? It was more than surehanded. From HunterPences turf-ripping, bare wristed grab in right field to Marco Scutarosage-defying slide-and-spin play on the grass beyond second base to Angel Paganstumbling catch in center to Pablo Sandovals full-extension haul at third base,the Giants made like alchemists while turning hits into outs for Zito.
The temperature, the humidity they were all just right.And a budding movement bore fruit.
If the Giants can run through the Cardinals two more times,behind Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain in their own environs, then here is thenext reasonable assignment for Zito:
Game 1 of the World Series against the Tigers JustinVerlander.
Now thats a trending topic.