Facing the Giants for the first time since San Francisco halted the Cardinals' quest to repeat as World Series champions, St. Louis was again stymied by starter Barry Zito, who led the Giants to a 1-0 win in front of a sellout crowd in their home opener.
It was Zito, of course, who had turned the 2012 NLCS around with his dominant performance at Busch Stadium in Game 5. He allowed six hits in 7 2/3 scoreless innings that night. On Friday, he shut out the Cardinals for seven.
"He was tough," catcher Yadier Molina said. "He was moving the ball all around with the fastball and the off-speed. We couldn't catch up to anything. He pitched pretty good. We have to give him some credit."
"The same guy we saw last year," added manager Mike Matheny. "He threw the ball well, didn't give us a lot of opportunities."
Zito threw pitches ranging in velocity from 69 mph to 85 mph, which was effective enough variation to limit the Cardinals to only three hits. The club didn't push a runner into scoring position until the seventh; that rally fizzled quickly, too, as Pete Kozma flied out to deep center to end the frame.
"He has a great game plan going into every game," Giants catcher Buster Posey said of Zito. "He's pitching with a lot of conviction, and I think one of the reasons he's doing that is that he's so well-prepared."
The Cardinals' inability to get anything going against Zito negated a nice effort by Jake Westbrook, who limited San Francisco to only an unearned run despite walking six and giving up six hits. Westbrook allowed baserunners aplenty in the third and fourth, and it was in the latter of those two frames that a rare mistake by Molina cost his starter.
A walk and one-out single put two on for Zito, who dropped a bunt in front of the plate to move both runners up. Molina waved off Westbrook to make the play but bobbled the ball as he lunged to pick it up. Zito reached without a throw to load the bases.
"Pretty simple: I missed it," Molina said. "I took my eyes off the ball and missed it."
Westbrook then missed on four straight pitches to Angel Pagan to walk home a run.
The walks, he said afterward, were a byproduct of trouble Westbrook incurred with his delivery. That affected his release point, which left him particularly erratic with his sinker, a pitch that, even when thrown well, comes with plenty of movement.
He was able to avert an avalanche of trouble in that fourth inning by following Pagan's walk with a strikeout and groundout, which left the bases full. But by the time he was out of the frame, Westbrook had already walked five and pushed his pitch count to 82.
"It was a grind. It was a battle," Westbrook said. "I felt like with me fighting my delivery the way I was, to only give up one run was pretty good. You can't really expect to win a ballgame walking six guys, and that's something I need to do a better job of."
Westbrook's delivery inconsistencies weren't so pronounced when he returned to the mound in the fifth, and that helped the righty to be efficient enough to pitch into the seventh. It wasn't until the Giants put two on with two out in the seventh that Matheny had to turn to his bullpen.
Westbrook, who threw 116 pitches in all, was bailed out of that jam by Randy Choate, who retired Brandon Belt.
"He almost looked as he started getting a little more fatigued, he actually had a little more action on the ball," Matheny said of Westbrook, who last threw more than 115 pitches in a start in August 2011. "He willed his way through it and had good stuff today."
The Cardinals needed the deep outing, too, in order to spare a bullpen that had covered 11 1/3 innings in the previous game from being overworked again. As it was, Matheny had to use only Choate and Trevor Rosenthal. The two combined to throw only 18 pitches.
The Cardinals' offense, though, couldn't reward a gutsy effort from the pitching staff. After scoring eight times in the first seven innings of Wednesday's game, the club has plated one run in 18 innings since. During that span, St. Louis has tallied only seven hits, one of which has gone for extra bases.
The lack of production is particularly apparent in the spots where the Cardinals would normally expect the most. Over the last two games, the Nos. 2 through 5 spots in the order are a combined 7-for-41.
"Games like this, it doesn't take a lot to sway it one way or the other, and the story is we just didn't get our offense going," said Matheny, whose club has scored one run in its last four games against San Francisco. "It's just one of those games where you scratch and claw and try to make something happen and we couldn't get anything going against him."