Winning has everything to do with the change in perception, of course. While finishing an 8-2 homestand, the Giants won their 10th consecutive game that Zito started. A six-run second inning, featuring two-run homers from Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro, sustained Zito, who became the first Giants pitcher in 20 years to usher his team toward a similar double-digit streak. San Francisco won 11 in a row behind Bill Swift from April 6-June 27, 1992.
Outwardly, Zito (14-8) is largely the same pitcher who finished 43-61 in his first five years with San Francisco, which signed him to a seven-year, $126 million deal before the 2007 season. Though he has made some technical adjustments, his attitude is what has changed most significantly.
"It's a cliche, but it's just [a matter of] having fun," Zito said. "When you're having fun, it means you're loose and you're enjoying baseball and you're trying to create things."
Throughout his six-inning stint, Zito escaped jams that might have entrapped him in previous years. He yielded a triple to A.J. Pollock, the first batter he faced, before retiring the next three batters on six pitches without any of them hitting a ball out of the infield.
Zito lapsed in the fourth inning when he issued two-out walks to Arizona's seventh and eighth hitters, Cody Ransom and Jake Elmore. That set up pinch-hitter Chris Young's two-run single. On past occasions, however, this rally could have mushroomed into a meltdown that would have driven Zito from the game. Though Zito surrendered back-to-back doubles to Ransom and Elmore in the sixth, he concluded an eight-pitch showdown with pinch-hitter Wil Nieves by coaxing an inning-ending fly to center.
"It's been fun to watch how he's bounced back," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said of Zito. "I'm happy for him. He's been through a lot, but he's always been ready to go and determined."
Zito improved to 4-0 against Arizona and 8-2 against the NL West this season.
"We're not the only guys," Arizona manager Kirk Gibson said. "He's throwing the ball good. If you just look at the pitches he makes, he's got good deception, he puts his pitches where he wants them. He's come a long way from where he was a couple of years ago. I give the guy credit for sticking with it. I'm sure that Boch feels pretty good and secure that he'll do well for him in the playoffs."
Bochy still wasn't ready to announce his postseason pitching plans and might not do so until the middle of next week. His praise for Zito -- "You have to like the way he's throwing" -- hinted that the 13-year veteran will be part of the Division Series rotation. Zito was left off the 25-man roster for all three postseason rounds in 2010.
But the Giants could face a tough decision if they face Cincinnati in the Division Series. Zito has compiled an 0-2 record with a 6.10 ERA in six career starts at Great American Ball Park, the Reds' home yard. The Giants' choices would include ignoring Zito's troubles in Cincinnati and using him there anyway; starting him in Game 2 at AT&T Park (Matt Cain or Madison Bumgarner almost surely will pitch Game 1); or assigning him to the bullpen for long-relief duty.
Zito insisted that he's not dwelling on clinching a postseason-rotation spot.
"I don't really know what it takes," he said.
Other Giants vied for postseason activity Thursday. Bochy started Brandon Belt in left field, Posey at first base and Hector Sanchez at catcher, which risked weakening the defense but potentially strengthened the batting order. All three Giants hit safely during the second-inning surge, and Sanchez hit his first career AT&T Park home run in the eighth inning.
But the overall results were inconclusive. Belt struggled with Jason Kubel's second-inning fly ball directly over his head -- a challenging play for any outfielder -- which fell for a double. Belt also might have had a chance to snare Elmore's sixth-inning double but couldn't quite catch up to it.
The defensive contrast was noticeable in the ninth inning, when Gregor Blanco, who substituted in left, made an exquisite sliding catch of pinch-hitter Adam Eaton's fly ball near the bullpen.
Bochy pointed out that Belt lacked the opportunity to practice fielding fly balls, since the Giants didn't take pregame batting practice. Belt, who started his third game of the season in left, admitted that he sees batted balls better in the outfield at night.
"My main [goal] during the day is finding some good sunglasses," Belt said.
You know a team is going well when finding the right pair of shades is a key performer's top concern.