ST. LOUIS -- If ever there was a tale of redemption, Barry Zito told it on the mound for the Giants on Friday night.
Left off the roster for all three postseason rounds when the Giants won the World Series in 2010, the left-hander was given the ball in a do-or-die situation against the Cardinals in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium.
All he did was pitch the game of his life. The Giants are alive today and heading home to the Bay Area for Game 6 on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. PT (FOX) because Zito shut out the Cards on six hits in 7 2/3 dominant innings.
"I couldn't be happier for him," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said after his club wrapped up Game 5 in a neat little 5-0 bow. "He's done a great job for us this year. I don't know how many times when we needed to win this year he found a way to get it done for us. I think you have to give him credit how he's handled things."
St. Louis was on the precipice of going back to the World Series to defend its title, and still leads the best-of-seven series, 3-2, after the loss. But any celebration was staved off for a couple of days because the Giants won for the 13th time in a row in games when Zito has started.
Fewest earned runs allowed by Barry Zito in a postseason start
Two years ago, Zito was on the precipice of oblivion. On Friday, he hung in there to win his first postseason game since Oct. 3, 2006, when Zito beat the Twins in the Metrodome for the A's in Game 1 of an American League Division Series.
"Well, you know, it was certainly a huge blow just personally to be left off that roster," Zito said, referring to his status two years ago. "But you've got to be professional. You can't pout. I worked on a lot of things that offseason and came back stronger for it, I think."
He was virtually on the outside when the Giants clinched their first World Series title since 1954 by winning Game 5 over the Rangers at Texas in 2010. It was no wonder that Friday night's game for the 34-year-old veteran of 13 big league seasons came almost with a sigh of relief.
"This is definitely it for me," Zito said several times when asked to rank Friday night's performance along with his career accomplishments that include the 2002 AL Cy Young Award. "There are definitely some playoff memories there, but they were all in a different uniform. This was probably the biggest one for me, especially doing it for the Giants."
"This was probably the biggest one for me, especially doing it for the Giants."
-- Barry Zito
Redemption? The leap was so great that Zito was trending world-wide on Twitter as he pitched deeper into Friday night's game. That's a far cry from the criticism he took in the years since he signed a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Giants in 2006.
Zito never felt that he lived up to the value of that deal. Instead, it became a burden. Yet he has vigorously worked to overcome his mental and physical failures. He's 58-69 with the Giants, and that includes a 15-8 mark this past season, his best numbers on the San Francisco side of the Bay and his best overall mark since 2006 (16-10).
So excuse Zito if he doesn't bother to check his current count of Twitter followers at this point.
"I tried Twitter a couple of years ago and it was a pretty devastating experience for me," he said. "I learned to not check the inbox. So I got off Twitter. I'm excited that the fans are fired up and that they're going to bring all that momentum into our stadium these next two games. I'm just happy for the team and happy that the fans get to see us back at AT&T Park."
Zito was simply dazzling. He mixed up any array of breaking pitches and followed by pounding his fastball high in the zone.
"I had all my pitches working tonight," he said. "Five pitches, just different locations, changing speeds."
He even added an RBI bunt single down the third-base line as the Giants opened it up with four runs against Lance Lynn in the fourth. By all accounts, it was the first bunt single of his career.
Asked if he thought that was true, Zito said: "Yeah, I do. I'm known for my Arabian horse gallop, as [Brian] Wilson calls it. I'm just not that fast. And to bunt for a hit you've got to be perfect, and fortunately it was there."
St. Louis had chances to get him, but it wasn't in the cards. The big inning was the second, when Yadier Molina opened with a single and went to third on a David Freese double. Daniel Descalso, who has been a pest throughout the playoffs, whiffed on a high fastball, and Bochy chose to intentionally walk the equally pesky Pete Kozma to load the bases. Lynn grounded into a double play, and essentially, that was that.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said there was no secret to Zito's effectiveness. Aside from the intentional pass, Zito didn't walk a batter, whiffed six and was lifted by Bochy after tossing 115 pitches -- the most he has thrown in more than two years.
"He was pitching," Matheny said. "He was raising his eye level. He was in the top of the zone, just above, on the edges, just off. He was moving in and out, back and forth. He was taking speed off his breaking ball and changeup. You don't have to have 99 [mph] on your fastball if you can locate and keep hitters off balance."
The Zito of the recent past would have been hard-pressed to turn in that kind of performance. But that is the mark of how far he has come, traversing a sometimes crushing and very rocky road. For Zito, it was a certainly a story of personal redemption on Friday night. And as he is learning, redemption can be awfully sweet.