Zito superb in shutting down Cubs

Zito superb in shutting down Cubs

Zito superb in shutting down Cubs
SAN FRANCISCO -- Reed Johnson paid the ultimate tribute to Barry Zito's pitching skill Sunday.

With one out in the eighth inning, Johnson pushed a bunt single toward third base. It was a tacit admission that Zito was simply too difficult to hit on this sunny afternoon at AT&T Park.

Zito entered the ninth inning with a four-hit shutout and, despite being removed after issuing a one-out walk to Darwin Barney, emerged with his 150th career victory in the Giants' 2-0 decision over the Chicago Cubs.

Zito's fourth victory in his last five starts continued his season-long resurgence. He trimmed his ERA to 2.98, down from 5.75 through the same 11-game stretch last year. That made him the third Giants starter to own a sub-3.00 ERA, joining Ryan Vogelsong (2.36) and Matt Cain (2.62). Zito also became the team's third consecutive starter to pitch into the ninth inning, following Madison Bumgarner on Friday and Cain on Saturday.

"We know Zito has had his issues in the past, but he doesn't look like the same guy," Cubs catcher Koyie Hill said. "He's competitive with all his pitches and it makes it tough on us, especially in a ballpark that's not very hitter friendly to begin with."

Additionally, Zito sustained the recent success of the Giants, who have won the first three games of this series and 15 of their last 22 games overall. San Francisco, which trailed first-place Los Angeles by 7 1/2 games in the National League West a week ago, has trimmed the deficit to three games.

Purists who cherish pitching and defense will treasure this one. Zito baffled the Cubs to such an extent that they moved only one runner into scoring position. Ian Stewart and Johnson singled back to back with one out in the fifth inning, but the Giants ended the inning with a double play as Hill struck out and Hector Sanchez threw out Stewart on an attempted steal of third base.

Shortstop Brandon Crawford, who has begun to display more defensive consistency, started another double play in the second inning and made a remarkable stop of Jeff Baker's fifth-inning leadoff smash. Center fielder Angel Pagan and right fielder Gregor Blanco made nice running catches of long drives, reminding observers that the Giants literally have three center fielders, including left fielder Melky Cabrera, stationed on defense.

As manager Bruce Bochy pointed out, "Part of that is [due to] the tempo Barry had out there."

"The defense really picked me up today," said Zito (5-2). "It's my job to throw strikes and keep them on their toes."

Zito retired Tony Campana to begin the ninth inning and appeared on the brink of duplicating the shutout he pitched in his first start of the season April 9 at Colorado. Then the left-hander walked Barney, who would be followed by Starlin Castro and Alfonso Soriano, Chicago's right-handed-batting third and fourth hitters. That prompted Bochy to replace Zito with right-hander Sergio Romo, since regular closer Santiago Casilla is still recovering from a bruised tibia. Romo struck out Castro and coaxed a comebacker from Soriano to earn his second save. Romo aggravated his injured right knee on the play, but Bochy tempered concern by saying, "We think he's fine."

As for removing Zito, Bochy said, "Your heart's telling you, 'Hey, give him a shot.' But your brain's telling you the right thing to do is go get him and bring in Romo."

"I can definitely see that's a huge part of the decision," Zito acknowledged. "I support it."

Support was in relatively short supply for Zito, whose Cubs counterpart, Travis Wood, allowed three hits in seven innings. San Francisco broke through in the fifth inning, after Pagan extended his franchise-record home-game hitting streak to 27 games by doubling to left field with one out. Sanchez struck out, but Joaquin Arias, batting .176 (3-for-17) with two outs and runners in scoring position, sent home Pagan with a single to right field. Pagan and Johnson's one-hop throw arrived at home plate simultaneously. But Hill couldn't hold onto the ball, enabling Pagan to score.

Pagan shared the home hit mark with "Turkey Mike" Donlin, whose streak extended from Aug. 28, 1905-May 5, 1906. But the new record holder downplayed his distinction.

"I got the record, but the most important thing was that we scored the first run," Pagan said.

The Giants provided thrills while adding the second run. Blanco coaxed a one-out walk from James Russell in the eighth inning and, one out later, broke from first base as Cabrera lined a single to left field. Soriano threw to second base, which actually was the proper play, as Blanco explained. But the opportunistic Blanco never broke stride and headed home, encouraged by third-base coach Tim Flannery as he rounded the bag.

"I was waiting for [Flannery] to do that, and it worked out perfectly," Blanco said.

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.