SAN FRANCISCO -- "The longest journey begins with the smallest step." An anonymous Chinese sage said that, not Barry Zito.
But Zito could have. He has enough Zen in him for the sentiment. And he had enough pitches in him to make it happen.
Few were giving the Giants a chance as the veteran left-hander was about to take the mound in Busch Stadium with the team down in the National League Championship Series, three games to one. Yes, the Giants had already recoiled from 2-0 down to Cincinnati in the NL Division Series.
Lightning, everyone said. And you know what they say about it striking twice.
"Nobody expected us to go out and come back and do this three more times," Zito said. "So we just said, 'Let's go out there and just have fun and be loose. When you're loose, your best talent comes out. That's just the way baseball is."
The Giants' long journey began with Zito, in the bottom of the second inning of Game 5 on Friday.
That inning started out as the fulfillment of everyone's dread. Yadier Molina opened with a single. David Freese doubled him to third. Lance Lynn, the Cardinals' starter, had already blown through the Giants for two innings, striking out the last four of them consecutively. If Zito now granted him a lead, matters would have looked dire.
Teams to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the LCS since 1985, when best-of-seven format was introduced in the LCS
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals
Boston Red Sox *
Boston Red Sox *
New York Yankees
Florida Marlins *
St. Louis Cardinals
Boston Red Sox
Kansas City Royals *
Toronto Blue Jays
* -- won World Series
Zito got one out, then had to intentionally walk No. 8 hitter Pete Kozma to load the bases but bring up Lynn. Two pitches later, Zito was back in the dugout.
"That's when the momentum really started to turn, completely," Zito said, "when Lynn hit into the double play. It may have seemed like a small thing, but stopping them at that point, and then having us come back, right there, it turned."
After having been no-hit through three by Lynn, the Giants didn't let him out of the fourth. They bunched four runs. Zito was turning into a young man again, retiring 16 of 17.
The Giants began playing downhill.
"Yep, that about sums it up," Zito said. "We were like fired up."
They could not be stopped.
"Well, obviously we could have been. But we did feel like there was a lot going for us," Matt Cain said. "Coming back home, in front of these fans ... the energy. That was a huge key for us."
And Zito turned the key. Prior to Game 5, there was a definitive sense that Zito's start would be one-for-three.
"It started with Zito," said the manager, Bruce Bochy. "The game he threw in St. Louis ... then they kind of fed off each other."
It was only one game, and even winning it would not pry the Giants' backs away from the wall. Yet prolonging the NLCS meant getting it back to AT&T Park, and putting it into the hot hands of Ryan Vogelsong and Cain.
"That's why, what turned it around for me was Zito's start," said lefty reliever Jeremy Affeldt, joining the consensus. "It gave us life. And we put that life to good use. When we got back here, we did what we needed to do: Vogey stepped up, Cain stepped up. Our offense lit up."
Game 6 was over in the second inning, by which time the Giants had a 5-0 lead toward the 6-1 victory.
Monday night, Game 7, same thing: 7-0 by the end of the third.
Downhill, as a runaway boulder.
"Not a lot went right for us the last three games," said Daniel Descalso, the St. Louis second baseman. "It's tough to win when you only score once in three ballgames. They just outplayed us all three games."
Strung together, the threesome added up to one of the most dominant pitching showcases in a postseason series since the 1966 World Series, when the Orioles concluded their four-game sweep of the Dodgers with three consecutive shutouts.
The muting was strangely familiar to fans of the Cardinals. St. Louis had a 3-1 lead in the 1996 NLCS over the Atlanta Braves, who then took the next three games by the cumulative score of 32-1.
"They were relentless. They didn't want to go home," Bochy said. "They had a never-say-die attitude, and they wanted to win for each other as bad as for themselves and for the amazing fans. These guys just never quit. They just kept believing, and they got it done."
"Winning that last game in St. Louis, that kind of got us going," said Marco Scutaro, the MVP of the series, "by bringing the series here, back home, then everybody went out there and took care of business."
It often looked a lot more like recess than business. But that, too, was a key to the comeback, the loose attitude influenced by a couple of, ah, loose screws.
Really, how are you going to be too tight to succeed around a couple of guys such as Brian Wilson and Hunter Pence?
"Hunter has done so much to help inspire these guys with his little talks," noted Bochy.
Pence's first little talk was quite big, delivered in the visitors' dugout of Great American Ball Park on Oct. 9, telling teammates he didn't yet want to part with them for the offseason.
Looks like they're stuck with each other for at least one more week.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.