CSNBayArea.com staff writer
SAN FRANCISCO – Major League Baseball has a bereavement list for players dealing with a death in the family. Barry Zito wanted no part of it.
Three days after the death of his father Joseph, Zito took the mound at AT&T Park. He settled in after a shaky start to the outing to give the Giants seven strong innings in a game they would go on to win 2-1 in walk-off fashion.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Giants break through against Marlins in 11th]
“I just try to minimize distractions when I take the mound, regardless of what it is,” Zito said. “Some things are a little heavier than others, but today I was able to go out there and stay focused and give the team a chance to win.”
The third of four games between the Giants and Miami Marlins didn’t end until Hector Sanchez’s shallow fly ball fell in front of Justin Ruggiano with the bases loaded in the 11th inning, long after Zito had departed. But Bruce Bochy knew to give credit where credit was due.
“It started with Zito,” Bochy said. “Considering what he’s had to go through, he had great focus out there. There’s nothing tougher than what he had to go through. To go out there with that focus, that’s impressive.”
While Zito was understandably hesitant to talk about the death of his father, his teammates picked him up.
“I think we were all impressed,” said Hunter Pence, who prevented the go-ahead run from scoring in the top of the 11th with a shoestring catch. “Obviously baseball is extremely important, but there’s perspective. For him to come out and pitch the way he did and be there for us…we’re a family too playing as a team, and we’re all here for him. He went out and pitched outstanding.”
Buster Posey said that Zito, despite the personal tragedy, was his usual self heading into Saturday’s start.
“Barry is the ultimate professional, but obviously when you lose a family member, especially a parent, I can’t image what he was going through,” Posey said. “He had his routine and he stuck to it and he gave us a great performance.”
It looked like Zito was headed for an early shower, not a great performance, after throwing 48 pitches to get through two innings. The Marlins only got to him for one run over that span, so Zito did his best to limit the damage, but a quality start did not appear likely early on.
Bochy said that Zito has proven over the course of his tenure with the Giants that he’s capable of bouncing back from early struggles, which has led to a longer leash.
“He’s probably got somewhat of a high pitch count because he’s using all his pitches and he doesn’t give in, which is a great quality,” Bochy said. “He’s also a guy that can handle it and he has shown that.”
The sentimental aspect of Zito’s outing overshadows the fact that the Giants were on the verge of losing three straight to baseball’s worst team. A loss would’ve put the Giants at .500 for the first time since April 2, the second day of the season, and on the verge of a sweep at home. Instead, the Giants improved to 24-14 at AT&T Park with their eighth walk-off win.
Gregor Blanco, leading off in Angel Pagan’s absence, reached base four times. His double to Triple’s Alley in the fifth inning bizarrely bounced high enough for a fan in the arcade seats to interfere. Zito, on first after a failed safety squeeze, was running on contact and umpires determined he would’ve scored from first had the ball stayed in play, knotting the game at a run apiece.
Zito left with the 1-1 tie in tact and turned it over to an overworked bullpen. But Bochy’s relievers combined for four scoreless innings, including 1.2 each from Sergio Romo and Sandy Rosario.
Rosario would’ve been in line for the loss if not for Pence’s gem in right. With two on and two out, Pence’s former teammate in Philadelphia Placido Polanco sent a slicing line drive the other way that found leather just before it would’ve hit grass.
“You know what’s on the line there,” Pence said. “I’m playing Polanco a little shallow, a little over. He’s really good at hitting those soft liners that way; he’s made a living off of it for a long, long time. Fortunately I was able to get there.”
Pence’s catch set the stage for a dramatic bottom half of the 11th that started when Blanco reached on an infield single.
“[Blanco] brings so much energy to the club,” Bochy said. “That’s what you love about him. He goes all out every play.”
After Marco Scutaro sacrificed Blanco to second, Posey followed with his own infield single on a close play, waving his arms wildly to beat first base umpire Mark Wegner to the call.
“They wanted it bad,” Bochy said. “You saw them going down the line in the last inning. They were doing all they can to beat those balls out. It’s good for these guys because they’re fighting.”
The hustle was rewarded after the Marlins intentionally walked Pence to load the bases for Sanchez, who sent the second pitch he saw from reliever Ryan Webb to shallow left. Unlike Pence, who appeared to put his legs into high gear on his game-saving catch, Ruggiano hesitated and didn’t even attempt a dive, allowing Blanco to trot home from third for the win.
The Giants have now gone 84 innings since their last home run, a leadoff shot by Blanco in Atlanta on June 14, but Bochy isn’t concerned.
“We’re a team that tries to keep the line moving and execute like we did the last inning,” Bochy said. “Home runs are nice, but we know it’s not our strength. They’ll come. We’re in a little rut right now, but these things seem to be streaky. Right now we’re just not hitting home runs, but you’ll see them come.”