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.

Giants Notes: Span feeling better, hopes to return to lineup Wednesday

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Giants Notes: Span feeling better, hopes to return to lineup Wednesday

CHICAGO -- Joe Panik's leadoff homer in the series opener was a jolt, but the Giants are a much more dangerous offense when Denard Span is clicking atop the lineup, a spot ahead of Panik, and they hope to have that duo going Wednesday. Span got treatment all day Tuesday and said he could return to the lineup against Kyle Hendricks. 

"The swelling has gone down," Span said of his sprained left thumb. "The thing to do is to come in tomorrow, test it out, and if it feels good, you strap it on."

Span said an X-ray came back clean, but he didn't grab a bat Tuesday to test the thumb, focusing instead on treatment. He is batting .326 in nine games since coming off the DL. His replacement in center this week, Gorkys Hernandez, was 0-for-3 against Jon Lester, lowering his average to .160. 

--- The main story from the second game of this series: Johnny Cueto is now dealing with a second blister, and you can see the lack of movement on his pitches. The Cubs took advantage. Lester didn't need much help while throwing a 99-pitch complete game in two hours and five minutes. 

"He threw a lot more changeups than we've seen in the past," Buster Posey said. "He's shown it in the past but tonight he had good command of it. It wasn't just a show-me pitch. He used it a lot and threw it to lefties as well.

Posey twice grounded short rollers in front of the plate.

--- Posey's throw to nab Javy Baez on Monday was one of the best of the year, and on Tuesday afternoon, Bruce Bochy said, "If he's given a chance, I don't think there's anyone better in the game." That might be true, but Willson Contreras is threatening to get into the conversation. He threw an 85 mph rocket to second in the fifth to nab Eduardo Nuñez. If you're wondering how Lester -- who flat-out has the yips about throwing to first base and doesn't do it -- has allowed just six stolen bases this season, look no further than his young catcher. Long-term, Contreras is the guy I would expect to compete with Posey for Gold Gloves. 

"Nuney, with his speed, can go," Bochy said. "Their catcher made a great throw. Put it right on the money."

--- From before Tuesday's game, what do the relievers think of the new hidden bullpen at Wrigley? And if you missed the Power Rankings the other day, the records are outdated, but there are updates in here on old friends Matt Duffy, Chris Heston, Tommy Joseph, Adalberto Mejia, Yusmeiro Petit and others. Petit in particular is incredible ... just keeps doing his thing. 

--- This play was made by the shortstop. That's good for the old UZR.

Now dealing with a second blister, Cueto gives up three homers to Cubs

Now dealing with a second blister, Cueto gives up three homers to Cubs

CHICAGO — Even after losses, Johnny Cueto tends to find a way to flash a smile or two in post-game interviews. He is as competitive as it gets between the lines, but off the field he embraces a relaxed attitude. 

There was none of that Tuesday night at Wrigley. Cueto wore a dour look while describing a 4-1 loss to the Cubs, perhaps because he is a man searching for answers. Cueto was already pitching with a blister for the first time in his career. On Tuesday, he admitted he’s now trying to make the ball dance while dealing with a second blister. 

The first, on his middle finger, popped up at the end of the spring and has bothered Cueto off and on. The second, on his index finger, formed in St. Louis last week. 

“It’s not an excuse,” Cueto said several times. “I was getting hit.”

The Cubs crushed three homers, including a 470-foot bomb from Kyle Schwarber. All three pitches leaked right over the heart of the plate, and Cueto admitted that he can't get that final twist on the ball as he normally does. A tad of his movement is missing, and hitters are taking advantage. 

“It’s just those pitches I left hanging,” Cueto said through interpreter Erwin Higueros. “When you leave pitches hanging or put them right in the middle of the plate, you’re going to pay the price.”

The homers — by Schwarber, Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo — represented 60 percent of the hits Cueto gave up. He struck out eight in six innings.

“It’s a little unlike Johnny to make mistakes like that,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “You like to think you could make a mistake and get away with it, but he didn’t tonight. A couple of fastballs he pulled over the heart of the plate and then one cutter.”

Catcher Buster Posey said the Cubs were on Cueto’s heater, so the duo tried to adjust. You can’t pitch without your fastball, though, and Cueto’s isn’t quite as explosive as it was in his first year with the Giants. The velocity is down a couple of ticks, but it’s unclear if that too is related to the blisters. 

What is clear is that Cueto is a different pitcher in his second season in San Francisco. He has a 4.64 ERA and opposing hitters are batting .253 with 11 homers. Through 10 starts last year, Cueto had a 2.83 ERA and was holding hitters to a .229 average. He had allowed just two homers. 

“Gosh, it’s just probably a few more mistakes than he made last year,” Bochy said. “He’s still competing so well and he gives you a chance to win every game.”

Cueto made it through six despite the long-ball issues, but that wasn’t enough against Jon Lester, who would have faced Cueto in Game 5 last October. Lester needed just 99 pitches to carve up the Giants for a complete game. He threw 70 strikes. 

That’s the type of efficient performance the Giants came to expect from Cueto last year. Cueto still expects it from himself, but his fingers aren’t cooperating. Asked if he would take a short stint on the DL to get right, Cueto said he can’t. He needs to keep pitching and have callouses form. Plus, any break without throwing would be a significant blow to a team trying desperately to stay within shouting distance of a playoff spot. 

“Basically, it makes no sense whatsoever,” to take a break, Cueto said.