SAN FRANCISCO – Like Harry Houdini escaping from handcuffs, Barry Zito worked his way out of jam after self-inflicted jam to give the Giants their first quality start in seven games.
“Amazing, really,” Giants manger Bruce Bochy said. “He was quite the Houdini today. I don’t know how he did it. Sheer determination.”
A ‘quality start’ is defined as an outing of six innings or more with three runs or less allowed. Walks allowed don’t factor into the equation.
Zito issued six free passes to the disciplined Oakland A’s lineup, but allowed just one run in six innings as San Francisco won the series finale, 5-2. The Giants are now 7-0 when their $126 million-dollar man takes the mound at home this season.
Zito’s outing wasn’t pretty by any means, but the first inning was by far the ugliest.
Coco Crisp greeted Zito and the late-arriving crowd with a leadoff double and Jed Lowrie followed by working the A’s first free pass. A double steal put two runners in scoring position for the dangerous Yoenis Cespedes, but that’s when Zito turned into an escape artist. After Cespedes flew out to center, Josh Donaldson struck out and Nate Freiman popped out, allowing Barry Zito to saunter back to the dugout unscathed.
Bochy said Zito did a good job of setting the tone for his teammates by working through early trouble.
“The first inning was critical,” Bochy said. “That was big that we don’t start the game down a run or two. Really amazing what Z did today dodging bullets.”
Despite Zito’s heroics, he was in line for the loss when Bochy sent Brett Pill to pinch-hit for his starter to lead off the bottom of the sixth inning.
“I was just missing off the plate on a lot of pitches,” Zito said. “Obviously I had way too many walks, but was able to pitch out of stuff when I had to. Things worked out because the boys came out and scored some runs.”
A’s starter A.J. Griffin had kept the Giants off-balance and off the scoreboard all day with a big curveball, but Pill started the rally with a single and moved up to third on Brandon Crawford’s double to right.
With a chance to take the lead, Pablo Sandoval poked the first pitch he saw from Griffin up the middle to plate both Pill and Crawford and give the Giants just their second lead of the four-game series.
“We’ve been waiting on an inning like that,” Bochy said. “Griffin was throwing great and hitting his spots. We were having a tough time, but finally got the rally going and had some key base hits there.”
Sandoval’s single wasn’t the only clutch hit of the inning. After A’s manager Bob Melvin turned the game over to his bullpen, Brandon Belt came through with an opposite field double off left-hander Hideki Okajima to make it 4-1.
“Brandon, he hangs in there well against lefties,” Bochy said. “He looked like he saw the ball pretty good and showed some patience up there, laying off some pitches. Then he got a ball he could drive to left-center.”
With just two quality starts in their last 15 games heading into the series finale, the Giants have had to rely heavily on their overtaxed bullpen. While Ramon Ramirez and George Kontos weren’t at their best Thursday, Jeremy Affeldt and Sergio Romo were.
Affeldt inherited a mess that Ramirez and Kontos combined to create and struck out pinch-hitter Brandon Moss to end the seventh. He followed with a scoreless eighth to bridge the gap to Sergio Romo, who worked a 1-2-3 ninth for his 14th save.
“The bullpen did a great job of picking each other up,” Bochy said. “That’s a much-needed win. We were in a tough series here. It’s one thing losing a series, but there’s some pride involved and the last thing we wanted was to get swept here in the Bay Bridge series.”
While Sandoval and Belt provided the offense and the bullpen shut the door on the A’s, the Giants wouldn’t have been in a position to avoid a sweep without Zito.
Bochy has seen the best and worst of Zito in his tenure as the Giants’ skipper and offered his take on the transformation taking place as the 35-year-old nears the end of his contract.
“To me what the difference is in Barry over the last year and a half is his poise and determination,” Bochy said. “He didn’t lose his focus out there and he makes pitches with men on base when he has to. He did that today.”