After Barry Zito's first postseason start in which he allowed four hits, four walks, a home run and two runs in just 2.2 innings, I had so little faith in him to shut down the St. Louis Cardinals that I began writing an offseason preview this morning.
A #RallyZito movement began on Twitter this afternoon, and the rest was history. Zito threw 7.2 innings, allowed six hits, no unintentional walks and struck out six as the San Francisco Giants beat the Cardinals 5-0 to force the series back to San Francisco for Game 6 on Sunday night.
Zito attacked the strike zone with his four-seam fastball (30 times), two-seam fastball (8), cutter (35), curve (25) and changeup (13) to keep the Cardinals off-balance all night.
He induced a key double play in the second inning with the bases loaded off the bat of pitcher Lance Lynn to get out of the biggest jam of the evening. Excellent defensive plays from Pablo Sandoval, Marco Scutaro, Angel Pagan and Hunter Pence kept the Cardinals at bay as well.
Will Zito's performance cause a chain reaction from starters Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain to help propel them all the way back from a 3-1 deficit to the World Series?
In many ways, Vogelsong and Cain give the Giants a better chance to win against the Cardinals than Zito, making the odds of a comeback plausible.
The Cardinals' lineup features five right-handed batters, two lefties and a switch-hitter, making them more vulnerable against right-handed pitching. Their .747 OPS against righties was solid, but not as good as the .787 OPS they put up against lefties.
Despite pitching a gem at Busch Stadium against the Cardinals earlier this season, Zito looked like a horrible matchup given his massive platoon split (.559 OPS allowed vs. lefties, .823 OPS vs. righties). Yet Zito delivered perhaps the game of his life, and definitely the biggest game of his Giants career, to stave off elimination.
As for Vogelsong in Game 6, he matches up well with the Cardinals. He pitched seven innings and allowed one run in the Giants' Game 2 win, and he also pitched seven shutout innings against them during the regular season.
He's particularly tough on righties (.653 OPS allowed) and at AT&T Park (2.86 ERA). He's also been the Giants' best pitcher during the postseason (1.50 ERA) after finishing the regular season with three straight excellent starts.
If Vogelsong can get the Giants to Game 7, Cain will also be a good bet to succeed. He gave up three runs in 6.2 innings against the Cardinals in a Game 3 loss with the turning point coming from a Matt Carpenter two-run homer. Carpenter is 5-for-5 lifetime against Cain, and he beat a slider that was on the inside corner for the homer to give the Cardinals a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
Cain was pounded for 16 hits, nine runs and two home runs in his two regular-season starts against the Cardinals, with the Giants splitting the two games.
Despite his regular-season problems with the Cardinals, he should pitch well the next time around given his success in Game 3, his track record at AT&T Park (2.03 ERA) and his ability to shut down righties (.563 OPS allowed).
Zito's big effort saved the season against all odds, shifting the series back to San Francisco where the Giants have their two best starters lined up. His effort may or may not inspire his teammates, but it certainly sets them up for a chance to win two straight and advance to the World Series for the second time in three years.
Zito got the ball to Vogelsong despite facing perhaps the most talented lineup in baseball, and a right-handed dominant lineup at that. He did it with a fastball that never topped 86 mph. He did it with a nasty curve, a cutter, excellent command and control and the ability to throw any pitch in any count. It was a masterful performance on the biggest stage after a tumultuous six-year run in San Francisco.
Will Vogelsong and Cain shut the door on the Cardinals' season? Postseason baseball is unpredictable, and the Cardinals' pitching staff and hitters may have their own ideas. Yet without Zito's performance, the Giants would be home for the winter, and we'd be left looking forward to next year.
Instead, the season was saved by Zito, and now Vogelsong, Cain and the Giants offense have a chance to carry that momentum home for two more wins that would propel the season forward once more. The defending champion Cardinals are a great team, but now their backs are suddenly getting closer to the wall because of Zito's effort.