Barry Zito has been called many things over the course of his six-year career with the San Francisco Giants, most of them unprintable variations on the word "loser."
But a hero?
Not until Friday night, when the much-maligned southpaw hurled 7.2 innings of shutout ball against the St. Louis Cardinals to postpone elimination and send the NLCS back to San Francisco.
And while the Cards still hold a 3-2 lead, San Francisco's 5-0 win changes the emotional and strategic tenor of this series.
What once looked like a five-game runaway has suddenly and improbably taken on the feel of a seesaw battle. The Giants, for lack of a better phrase, are back.
Now, it should be mentioned that San Francisco still faces, at best, two more win-or-die games. A series win is still unlikely. But within the dark chasm of desperation playoff scenarios, the Giants have a surprisingly viable way out. The path is clear. The scenarios are enticing.
As bad chances go, San Francisco's are pretty good.
Before we tackle that angle, back to the Zito game.
The Redbird faithful arrived at Busch Stadium on Friday night hoping—and, if they're being honest, probably expecting—to celebrate the Cardinals' second consecutive NL pennant.
St. Louis—a team that went 50-31 at home this year—was set to face a pitcher who hasn't had a road ERA under 4.00 since 2006 and whose fastest pitch in 2012 went 87.3 miles per hour.
If ever there was a death-blow moment, this was it.
Giants fans were so convinced of their impending doom that they devised a tongue-in-cheek Twitter hash-tag intended, at least on its face, to galvanize support around their embattled starting pitcher. Zito, they reasoned, could use the good vibes.
As the southpaw advanced deeper into the night, #RallyZito transitioned from inside joke to Internet war cry.
By game's end, it was downright prophetic.
Sure, it was just one outing, but San Francisco's survival felt like a small-scale miracle for those fans inured to Zito's repeated failures.
And when you look at what the Giants have lined up for the days ahead, it begins to feel like something more.
Start with the pitching.
San Francisco—itself the owner of a 48-33 home record in 2012—sends Ryan Vogelsong to the mound in Game 6 and follows up with Matt Cain in Game 7.
Some numbers for your perusal...
Ryan Vogelsong Home Statistics, 2012: 94.1 IP, 2.86 ERA, 2.24 SO:BB
Matt Cain Home Statistics, 2012: 110.2 IP, 2.03 ERA, 5.32 SO:BB
Pretty strong stuff, right? But perhaps it was a fluke. Let's check the year before...
Ryan Vogelsong Home Statistics, 2011: 109.0 IP, 2.15 ERA, 2.60 SO:BB
Matt Cain, Home Statistics, 2011: 112.2 IP, 2.80 ERA, 2.78 SO:BB
As members of the San Francisco Giants, Vogelsong and Cain have both enjoyed better outcomes than their peripheral statistics would suggest.
The gulf between their home and away splits helps account for that discrepancy, a sign that the spacious confines of AT&T Park are well-calibrated to their fly-ball tendencies (particularly for Cain). Put it all together, and San Francisco looks like a damn tough out.
What about the Cards?
St. Louis will likely counter with Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse.
As I outlined in a previous article, Carpenter has been up and down since returning to the Cardinals in September from midseason surgery. While his velocity is in line with pre-injury norms, Carpenter has struggled to miss bats and, because of that, has become particularly vulnerable to the mysterious whims of the batted ball.
Kyle Lohse presents more of a problem for San Francisco.
The veteran righty was stellar this year thanks to superb command and in spite of a miserable ground-ball rate.
On the surface, it would seem like his stuff would play well in AT&T Park and indeed Lohse has a career 3.42 ERA there over 26.1 innings. Then again, he hasn't been nearly as good as Cain, his presumed Game 7 adversary.
In both games, San Francisco has to like its draw.
Cardinals fans could launch any number of counterpoints. St. Louis has a better lineup, an experienced playoff core, an uncanny record of success in October and, most importantly, a one-game cushion.
The San Francisco response is simple:
We survived Zito. We can survive anything.