ST. LOUIS Only Barry Zito can say whether he pitched the game of his life Friday night.
But thanks to him, the Giants still lay claim to theirs.
Doubted and derided for such a stout measure of his six seasons here, Zito took the mound with a groundswell of support from his dugout and from back home. And he turned the sneer, big-money pitcher into an accolade as the Giants shocked a red-clad crowd with a 5-0 victory in Game 5 of the NLCS that forced this series to return to 24 Willie Mays Plaza for Game 6 on Sunday.
Zito spun all manner of webs from his fingertips, curving and cutting and sliding through one of baseballs most dangerous right-handed lineups while taking a shutout into the eighth inning.
He even surprised with the first bunt single of his career, which followed Brandon Crawfords two-run single and capped a four-run rally in the fourth inning.
It was enough for Zito to bring them home. Four runs is almost always enough for him.
He won his first postseason game since the 2006 AL Division Series for Oakland, when he outpitched the Twins' Johan Santana.
The Cardinals lead the best-of-7 series, three games to two. They arrived at Busch Stadium with their bags packed as a contingency. They did not unpack.
Starting pitching report
The Cardinals lineup stung left-handers all season, but Zito kept pacifying their bats with soft smoke.
He stayed around the zone with all his pitches, mixing his snappier curve along with a slider, a cutter and an 85-mph fastball that kept hitting catcher Buster Poseys target. He struck out six in 7 23 innings and the only walk he issued was intentional.
It helped that umpire Ted Barrett, who also worked the plate for Matt Cains perfect game in June, allowed him to color outside the lines a bit.
A calm first inning is so important for Zito, and he managed it while pitching around Carlos Beltrans one-out single. Even that hit came on what looked to be a quality curveball; third baseman Pablo Sandoval helped to save Zito some pitches, at least, when he made a diving catch of Allen Craigs soft foul fly for the third out.
The Cardinals applied instant pressure in the second inning, though. Yadier Molina pumped his fist while running down the line on his leadoff single up the middle, and David Freese reached on a bloop double when right fielder Hunter Pence came up short on a diving attempt near the line.
But Zito disarmed the pesky lower third of the Cardinals order. He struck out Daniel Descalso, and after an intentional walk to No. 8 hitter Pete Kozma, pitcher Lance Lynn broke his bat while grounding into a double play. (Why, again, do managers ever let their pitchers swing with the bases loaded and less than two outs?)
When the game began, Craig posed the biggest threat to Zito; the Cardinals first baseman homered twice off him in August, for the only runs that the left-hander allowed in a 4-2 victory.
Zito did not own Craig on this night, either. The Cal alum reached on a leadoff double in the fourth and took third on Molinas tapper back to the mound, but Zito retired David Freese on a lineout to short and Descalso grounded out as the Cardinals failed to score.
Once handed a 4-0 lead, Zito kept throwing strikes and involving his defense. His teammates did nothing to make him regret that tactic, especially in the fifth inning when Pence made a sliding catch and second baseman Marco Scutaro skidded on his knees in the outfield grass while taking away another hit.
Then Zito went from locked in to unconscious. He began the sixth by getting ahead of Beltran, only one of the best postseason hitters in history, and dusted him with a fastball that appeared to have suction force as it hit Poseys high target.
Pagan made a fine catch of Craigs sinking liner to end another 1-2-3 inning, and Zito pitched around Descalsos two-out single to get the Giants back in the dugout quickly in the seventh.
Zito allowed a one-out single in the eighth but manager Bruce Bochy allowed him to face Beltran one more time. Zito recorded a fly out to right field on his 115th and final pitch one more than he threw in his remarkable shutout at Coors Field to begin his season.
The Giants had been swept in a three-game series at Arizona to begin the year. Zito picked them up at Coors Field. He kept them alive now.
And hows this: If the Giants can run the table on the Cardinals, Zito would appear to be the No.1 option to start Game 1 of the World Series.
Santiago Casilla struck out Matt Holliday to strand Zitos runner in the eighth.
Sergio Romo pitched around a single in the ninth to preserve the shutout the Giants first in the postseason since their Halloween night victory at Texas in Game 4 of the 2010 World Series.
At the plate
Zito entered the game 125-7 in his career when he receives at least four runs of support, including 40-3 in six years as a Giant.
That seemed like a big bucket to fill, given their struggles against Cardinals pitching in this series. And Lance Lynn dominated the first time through the order, striking out five while facing one more than the minimum in three innings.
But just as he did in Game 1, Lynn came upon his invisible wall in the fourth inning -- and he smacked into it like a parakeet.
Scutaro and Sandoval started the rally with consecutive singles, and after Buster Posey chased a slider while striking out, Hunter Pence hit a tapper back to the mound.
It should have been a double play, but Kozma broke late from shortstop to cover second base and Lynn made a throw that couldve won him a fuzzy blue bear at the carnival. It did him no favors in his actual context, though. The low throw doinked off second base and bounced into center field for an error, allowing Scutaro to score.
Brandon Belt popped out with runners at the corners, but Gregor Blanco drew a two-out walk to load the bases and Brandon Crawford served a 3-2 pitch up the middle for a two-run single.
It was Zito, of all people, who capped the four-run rally. He surprised the usually savvy Cardinals with a two-out bunt that landed like a drop shot down the third base line. Freese was playing far too deep to do anything useful as Blanco raced home.
The Giants did not score again until the eighth, when Sandoval turned around an inside heater from Mitchell Boggs that was meant to jam him. It was the third home run of the postseason for the Panda one fewer than what Cody Ross contributed to the Giants in their 2010 run.
Sandoval, who ailed all game after fouling a ball off his right foot in the first inning, did his traditional face-to-beard happy dance with Brian Wilson upon returning to the dugout.
Pence came up short on his attempt to catch Freeses double in the second inning, but he made a remarkable effort to haul in Kozmas dying quail in the fifth. The ball actually hit Pence on the right wrist before taking a lucky deflection into his glove.
Scutaro followed by sliding on the outfield grass and then making a quick throw to retire pinch hitter Shane Robinson.
All in all, the Giants played their cleanest and best defensive game thus far this postseason.
The Cardinals announced 47,075 paid. The RallyLynn movement never took off.
After traveling on Saturday, the Giants and Cardinals shift to AT&T Park for Game 6 of the NLCS on Sunday. Right-hander Ryan Vogelsong (1-0, 1.50 in two postseason starts) will oppose right-hander Chris Carpenter (1-1, 1.86 in two postseason starts). First pitch is scheduled for 4:45 p.m. PDT.