While San Francisco trimmed its deficit in the National League West race to two games behind the first-place Dodgers, Giants manager Bruce Bochy cautioned against dwelling on the standings this early.
"There's so much baseball left," Bochy said. He did acknowledge, "You're where you want to be, and that's right in the middle of things. That's important, even at this stage of the season."
Zito didn't hesitate to look toward upcoming stages and future Giants-Dodgers clashes.
"It's the biggest rivalry in baseball," he said. "We're going to be playing them down the stretch in crunch time in September, no doubt. So it's good to get that win under your belt."
Playing without center fielder Matt Kemp, second baseman Mark Ellis, starter Ted Lilly and reliever Javy Guerra, the Dodgers have lost six of their last seven games. Zito, who has experienced several postseason races in a Major League career that began in 2000, sensed that it's never too early for a ballclub to pounce on its antagonist. The Giants did just that in this opener of a three-game series, scoring four runs in the first inning and three in the second.
"They're banged up right now over there. We have to capitalize on that," said Zito (6-5). "We were banged up early in the year and they capitalized on that. That's the nature of the game. It's a marathon."
Zito's outing against the Dodgers might have seemed like a marathon, compared to recent efforts. He recorded a 10.67 ERA (17 earned runs in 14 1/3 innings) while losing his previous three starts.
He replaced that ineffectual pitching with sheer effectiveness, allowing two Dodgers to stray as far as second base. The left-hander, who had lost his last four decisions to the Dodgers and hadn't defeated them since May 8, 2009, improved to 117-7 in his career when receiving at least four runs of support while in the game.
"Zito changes speeds and tries not to throw it over if he doesn't have to," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "He's tough to face down seven runs early. We've got to be able to keep it close and make their pitcher work in danger all night long. He didn't have any danger."
Bochy noted that Zito struck the proper balance between pitching aggressively and not throwing too many hittable strikes.
"I think he learned from his previous starts," Bochy said. "He went from one end of the spectrum to the other."
Zito demonstrated from the outset that this evening would develop differently.
He opened the game by walking Dee Gordon, a .228 hitter, but negated that lapse by coaxing Elian Herrera's double-play grounder. Zito walked two of the first three Dodgers he faced in the second inning and stranded them by inducing popups from Juan Uribe and Tony Gwynn.
That launched a stretch in which Zito retired 14 of 16 batters until Jerry Hairston and A.J. Ellis singled to christen the seventh. Unruffled, Zito set down Uribe, Gwynn and James Loney on harmless fly balls.
Sandoval did the most to ensure that the Giants would back Zito sufficiently by contributing to all three of their scoring rallies. The switch-hitter entered Monday with only one extra-base hit, a double, in 51 at-bats spanning 14 games since missing slightly more than five weeks after surgery to remove a broken left hamate bone.
"It's tough coming from that injury because you don't have the strength in your hands," Sandoval said. But a prolonged pregame discussion with hitting coach Hensley Meulens helped the third baseman address some flaws.
"He was quieter and more disciplined," Bochy said. "He wasn't overswinging."
Sandoval's two-run double highlighted the Giants' big first inning against Dodgers starter Nathan Eovaldi (0-4), who preceded that by yielding Ryan Theriot's infield hit, Melky Cabrera's bloop single and Angel Pagan's RBI double, a grounder that caromed off first base and skipped into the right-field bullpen.
"We hit the ball in the right place," Bochy said.
Hector Sanchez's RBI single concluded the inning's scoring.
The Giants maintained pressure on the Dodgers in the second inning. Cabrera and Pagan stroked RBI singles before Sandoval lifted a sacrifice fly.
Sandoval doubled and came home on Sanchez's double to score San Francisco's final run in the fifth inning.