RallyZito movement blooms as Giants take NLCS back home

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RallyZito movement blooms as Giants take NLCS back home

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.

RATTO: Barry Zito and his 'little fastball that could'

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.

Reliable on the mound, Melancon seeks thrills off of it

Reliable on the mound, Melancon seeks thrills off of it

SAN FRANCISCO — At his introductory press conference Friday, new Giant Mark Melancon was asked about the fearlessness it takes to be a big league closer. He looked down at the first row of seats, where his wife Mary Catherine was sitting in a brand new No. 41 jersey, smiling. 

“You should probably ask my wife that,” Melancon joked.

When the Melancons got married, Mary Catherine had a calligrapher write up an actual bucket list of things the two could do together and presented it to Mark as a wedding gift. 

“It’s framed and it’s in our bathroom,” Mark said during an interview with CSN Bay Area on Friday. “It’s literally in our bathroom and we look at it all the time and try to plan out what we’re going to get done. Because it is on paper and it’s a goal and all that, we’ve checked off probably 40 or 50 percent of it in six years.”

The check marks include biking down the world’s “most dangerous road” in Bolivia and diving with great white sharks near New Zealand. The Melancons have visited Dubai and gone on a safari and stayed in countless cities off the beaten path. They have gone underwater with manta rays and high in the air in a blimp. Some of the items are simple ones, like attending a Nascar race. 

“There are a few items we’ll have to wait for until after baseball,” Melancon said. “We try to keep it safe of course, but it’s just a lot of fun. It’s a way to kind of bring creativity and allow ourselves to do things you could easily say no to.”

The standard MLB contract prohibits quite a few “dangerous” activities, and with a four-year, $62 million deal that is currently the second-biggest ever for a reliever, Melancon will hold off on certain trips, like skiing the Swiss Alps. “Attend the Kentucky Derby” is on the bucket list, but because the Derby is in May, that one is saved for retirement. In his first year with the Giants, Melancon hopes to put a check mark next to “sit backstage at a concert.”

Melancon said the thrill-seeking has slowed down a bit because the couple now has three young children, two daughters and a son. The Giants are hoping the more relaxed vibe carries over into their ninth innings. Team officials have been told by past Melancon employers that they signed a closer who is “boring” on the mound, in a good way. With a cutter-heavy approach, Melancon tends to get his ninth-inning work done quickly and without drama. That’s a welcome change of pace for an organization that has grown accustomed to “torture” late in games. 

“He was our target and we’ve gotten to know him, and the more we’ve gotten to know him the better we’ve felt about the fact that he was really meant to be a Giant,” team president and CEO Larry Baer said. 

The Giants had Melancon as their top offseason choice — and only big offseason expenditure — all along. Team officials feel even better about that approach after watching Melancon tour the ballpark Friday morning and meet with season-ticket holders and team employees. The fit was an easy one, with one member of the front office saying Melancon is “practically straight out of Giants central casting.”

Melancon’s new teammates feel the same way. He said eight to 10 of them have reached out since the deal was announced Monday. The group includes the types of players who are on any free agent’s bucket list of potential teammates. A ground ball pitcher, Melancon is looking forward to working with a Gold Glove infield. 

“That’s kind of an attractive thing to have a couple of Gold Glovers (up the middle) and then being able to throw to Buster is icing on the cake,” he said. “When you put things together on paper and go ‘who do you want to throw to and back you up,’ this team stands out.”

Dexter Fowler leaves Cubs, signs $82.5 million deal with Cardinals

Dexter Fowler leaves Cubs, signs $82.5 million deal with Cardinals

ST. LOUIS -- Dexter Fowler is headed from the World Series champions to their biggest rival.

After helping the Chicago Cubs end their long championship drought, he finalized an $82.5 million, five-year contract with the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday. Fowler fills the last big hole left in the Cardinals lineup after moves made earlier in the offseason to shore up the bullpen.

"It was an honor just to be considered to be in the Cardinals organization," said Fowler, who will wear No. 25 in honor of his mentor, Barry Bonds, because his usual 24 is retired by the Cardinals.

"You play against the Cardinals, I've been playing against them for eight years now," Fowler said, "and they always come out fighting. Always fighting. And then being with a rival, being the Cubs however many times we play them a year, you see them and - it's always good a winning team wants you."

Fowler was also a free agent a year ago, when he spurned a $33 million, three-year offer from Baltimore, who refused to offer an opt out after one year, and signed a $13 million, one-year deal with the Chicago Cubs. He hit .276 with 13 homers and a career-best .393 on-base percentage that landed him in his first All-Star Game, then had a pair of home runs in helping the Cubs win their first World Series title in 108 years.

"Playing over there, and playing against the Cardinals, you see them and you saw that they weren't far away," Fowler said. "Obviously they beat up on us, we beat up on them. It was almost even. It was one day or another. I can't put my finger on one thing or another, but we're definitely close."

His new deal calls for a $10 million signing bonus, payable in $1 million installments each July 1 and Oct. 1 for the next five years, and annual salaries of $14.5 million.

He gets a full no-trade provision, $50,000 bonuses for making the All-Star Game and winning a Gold Glove, a $25,000 bonus for a Silver Slugger, $100,000 for League Championship Series MVP and $150,000 for World Series MVP. He would get $250,000 for NL MVP, $150,000 for finishing second in voting and $100,000 for third through fifth. He would get $50,000 for Division Series MVP if the award is created.

One of the goals this offseason for St. Louis was to get more athletic, both defensively and on the base paths. Fowler was identified early in the process as someone who filled that role.

"He was always someone we were hoping to sign," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said, "but after this past week at winter meetings ... we certainly wanted to get this done. And we're excited we got this done."

The lanky 30-year-old from Atlanta is a .268 career hitter over nine seasons with Colorado, Houston and the Cubs. He's expected to slot into the Cardinals' leadoff spot, giving St. Louis a switch-hitter in front of lefty-hitting Matt Carpenter and righties Aledmys Diaz, Stephen Piscotty and Yadier Molina.

"You obviously have great presence at the top of the lineup," manager Mike Matheny said. "The athleticism, the excitement of bringing in a player that has all those physical attributes, I think it's been well-said, this is the guy we were hoping to be sitting up here with."

Fowler said negotiations with the Cardinals were easy with one notable exception.

"We were on a 2-hour time difference, and I guess he wanted to get in touch with me," Fowler said, "but I was in the dentist chair, so he couldn't get in touch."

So, Fowler sent his agent Casey Close a photo of him to pass along to Mozeliak - "That was a first for me, that kind of photo," the GM said - and everything proceeded smoothly after that.

The news of his signing started breaking while Fowler was on a plane to St. Louis, and that also created some problems: namely, with his sleep. People started coming up to him while he was trying to take a nap and asking him whether the news was true.

"I was like, 'Uh, you know, I don't know,'" Fowler said with a grin. "It was definitely funny."

Fowler is eager to help the Cardinals add their 12th World Series championship.

"This is a baseball city," said Fowler. "The fans, every time you come here, you see red everywhere. That's awesome to see. Even going through our parade (in Chicago), you saw Cardinals fans out there. They've won World Series (and) they're poised to be back in the World Series and win again. That was a big part of my decision."

The Cardinals were investigating the trade market for an outfielder during the winter meetings, but decided Fowler was their best option. Because Fowler did not accept Chicago's $17.2 million qualifying offer, St. Louis forfeits its top draft pick next June, No. 18 overall, and the Cubs get an extra selection after the first round as compensation

It was a sacrifice the Cardinals were willing to make to not only improve their lineup, but snag a piece away from their biggest rival in the NL Central.

"There's always the baseball angle in all decisions, but there's also the human element," Mozeliak said. "We think about him as a leader. He wants to have a voice in that clubhouse. When you think back to wanting to change the culture of what we have going on - we like what we have, but now it's even better."