RallyZito movement blooms as Giants take NLCS back home

919333.jpg

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.

Giants spring training Day 7: Rule change should help Bochy

Giants spring training Day 7: Rule change should help Bochy

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — On one of the many nights last season when his bullpen imploded, Bruce Bochy nearly put a catcher on the mound. Trevor Brown ended up playing an inning of third base on June 28 as the Giants gave up eight runs over the final two innings in a brutal loss to the A’s, and he said this week that he was told he was the next man up on the mound. 

That night was an odd one, as a tired bullpen was waiting for Sergio Romo to get activated off a rehab assignment and trying to get by without long reliever Chris Stratton, who had thrown 57 pitches out of the ‘pen the night before. The bench was also short because Joe Panik was about to be put on the concussion DL.

Bochy hopes he doesn’t have to deal with such a situation this season, and not just because the bullpen should be much improved. The disabled list lasts 10 days now, not 15, and Bochy is thrilled with the new rule.

“The DL thing, I really like it,” he said. “You get caught in that gray area so often.” 

Bochy met with league officials on Saturday to go over some of the rule changes. DL stints can now be made retroactive just three days, but it’s still a vast improvement overall. 

“With (position) players and pitchers it’s going to make it easier to DL guys,” Bochy said. “If you’re looking at (starting) pitchers, they could miss just one start.”

The Giants have often played a man or more short, trying to get by day-by-day to give a position player or starter time to heal. Around camp, this could be called the Angel Pagan Rule, as the former Giants outfielder often missed a week or so before officially going on the DL. At times, Bochy has been patient with players like Buster Posey and Hunter Pence, knowing that even if they missed a week, keeping them off the DL could still earn the Giants seven or eight games with a big bat back in the lineup. If a future diagnosis is that a player will miss a week, it’ll be much easier to swallow putting him on the 10-day DL than it was for the 15-day. Likewise, the Giants will take advantage of the change if a pitcher will have to miss a start. 

Bochy has said often that he would like every reliever to go on the DL during the season to freshen up. That’ll make more sense now, and it should keep the Giants from having to play as many games where the bullpen is gassed and a backup catcher is preparing to pitch. For guys like Stratton — a versatile pitcher on the 40-man roster — it should also lead to increased trips up to the big leagues to fill gaps. 

INJURY UPDATE: Pence (side muscle) took 25 swings during a live BP session in the cage and Bochy said he’s doing much better. That was about the only significant activity Sunday. Once again, the workout was rained out. Bochy said the Giants have enough time to get guys ready for the Cactus League opener on Feb. 24, but they’ll likely hold some big-name pitchers out of the early games. Brandon Crawford and Posey will get plenty of early starts to prepare for the WBC. 

PROSPECT WATCH: If the early games are turned over to prospects, Dan Slania will be an interesting guy to watch. Slania is listed at 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, so he always had the look of an imposing reliever. But his greatest success last season came after a surprise move to the rotation. 

Slania, a 2013 fifth-round pick out of Notre Dame, got a call on his 24th birthday telling him to prepare to start because of an injury in Richmond’s rotation. He had not started a game since high school, but his four-pitch mix worked. He had a 5.32 ERA out of the bullpen but it dropped to 1.48 in 10 starts for the Flying Squirrels. In two Triple-A starts, he struck out 14 over 13 innings while allowing just eight hits and two runs. The Giants put him on their 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. 

“He had a great year last year,” Bochy said. “He’s in camp for a reason. He’s got great stuff and a good makeup.”

RULE CHANGE: One more thing that came out of that rules meeting: Managers who are out of challenges now have to wait until the eighth inning to ask an umpire to look at a play.

QUOTABLE: “We know he’s better off taking some days. We talked about it (with him). He agrees that it’ll help him.” Bochy on Pence’s workload. The right fielder is coming off two injury-marred seasons, and the Giants have no intention of even trying to get him back to his Iron Man days. 

Tomlinson still a fit as Giants put bench together

Tomlinson still a fit as Giants put bench together

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The “options game” can be a cruel one. It can also be one of the most important parts of spring training. 

If two players are relatively even at the end of camp but only one can be optioned to the minors, he’s usually the man left out. Giants officials have already made reference to this several times in discussing left field, where Jarrett Parker — who is out of options — would surely be claimed off waivers if the Giants try to sneak him back to the minors before Opening Day. Mac Williamson, on the other hand, can be shuttled back and forth. 

The same holds true for Kelby Tomlinson, and while it was easy during the first week of camp to see him as the odd man out, manager Bruce Bochy said that’s not the case. What do all the veteran infielders mean for the young one already in-house?

“It hasn’t affected anything for Kelby, really,” Bochy said. “It’s all about competition for spots on this team.”

Tomlinson played 54 games in 2015 and 52 a year ago, but the Giants put a clear emphasis this offseason on finding backup infielders. Jimmy Rollins, Jae-gyun Hwang, Orlando Calixte and Gordon Beckham were among those brought in before camp, and Aaron Hill arrived on the fourth day. Sure, Ehire Adrianza — who was seemingly perpetually out of options — is no longer around, but if the Giants carry just two backup infielders, one of them will almost certainly be Conor Gillaspie. 

Tomlinson isn’t bothered by the offseason of additions. He said he can take knowledge away from six weeks spent with guys he grew up watching.

“Rollins’ prime was right in my later high school years,” he said, smiling. “I’ve got a lot of guys to learn from and watch. It’s a little of both (a competition and learning experience). We’re all fighting for the same job, but we’re still on the same team and we’re all trying to learn from each other and help each other.”

Tomlinson is the incumbent, and the Giants certainly know all about his speed and ability to play all over the field (he continued to take fly balls this winter, just in case). They also now know that Tomlinson adds something that’s needed on any bench. Last season, he emerged as one of Bochy’s most reliable pinch-hitters. 

Tomlinson’s seven pinch-hits were tied for second on the team after Gillaspie’s 11. He was 7-for-17 in a pinch, adding three walks. Tomlinson’s simple swing and up-the-middle approach have proven perfect for important spots. He’s a .315 career hitter with runners in scoring position, a .373 hitter in situations baseball-reference deems “late and close,” and a .367 hitter in “high leverage” spots.

“I’m just trying to compete up there every at-bat, especially in that pinch-hitting role,” Tomlinson said. “It’s a grind, but that makes it fun when you give the team a quality at-bat. Even if it’s not a hit, you go up there and try to see five pitches and have a good at-bat.”

Tomlinson has given the Giants plenty of them over parts of two seasons. With Brandon Crawford headed for the World Baseball Classic, he is sure to see increased time this spring, and while the options game or non-roster list might catch up to him, the Giants haven’t forgotten what they already have. 

“He gives us versatility,” Bochy said, “So he’s in the mix, too.”