It all caught up to Zito in a flash, a four-run fifth inning that was more than the Blue Jays needed in a 4-0 victory Wednesday afternoon.
All of a sudden, struggling Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey resembled his 2012 National League Cy Young self, flummoxing the Giants lineup all afternoon with his confounding knuckleball to the tune of just two walks and two hits while striking out five in 8 1/3 innings. His return to the American League has not gone according to plan -- he entered with a 4-7 record and 5.18 ERA this season -- but he allowed just two baserunners before the Giants mounted a threat in the ninth with a single and a walk that ended Dickey's day.
"I hope we don't see another knuckleballer," said Bochy, whose club was baffled against Dickey in Toronto on May 14 to the tune of just two runs in six innings as the right-hander notched 10 strikeouts. "We certainly have a tough time with it.
"He was on today. It was moving ... and he just shut us down."
Even the friendly confines of AT&T Park -- San Francisco had won its last 13 regular-season home games that Zito started -- were no comfort for the Giants left-hander Wednesday.
After allowing only one Blue Jays runner to reach scoring position in the first four innings, Zito's outing quickly unraveled in the top of the fifth inning after a one-out walk to No. 8 hitter Henry Blanco.
"I think we got that pitch earlier," said Zito of ball four. "It's a human element. It's part of what makes this game great."
Dickey put the Blue Jays on the board when he doubled Blanco home. The pitcher initially showed bunt, but pulled back to swing and slashed a ground ball down the third-base line past the charging Pablo Sandoval. By the time Andres Torres could field the ball in foul territory, Blanco was already lumbering home with the go-ahead run.
"You play the game in your head before you ever get to the plate -- at least you should," Dickey said. "When I saw both Panda and [first baseman Brandon] Belt crashing at the same time, it was a 'slug one' the whole way for me. ... I had a lot of practice in the National League and have done that quite a bit. I work on that in the cage, so it wasn't a shock to me."
Jose Bautista singled Dickey home later in the inning, and former Giant Mark DeRosa capped off the rally with a two-run single to put the Blue Jays ahead 4-0.
"I think the fifth for me was the Achilles' heel today," said Zito, who lost at home for the first time since Aug. 2. "The [hit by Dickey], that's going to happen. The other two hits hurt for me."
The Giants had the opportunity to end the inning with DeRosa at the plate when catcher Buster Posey's throw beat Bautista to third base on a stolen-base attempt. Sandoval's tag missed the runner, keeping the inning alive and allowing Toronto to tack on two additional runs.
In all, a 32-pitch, four-run inning gave the Blue Jays a commanding lead and ensured the Giants would leave home for a treacherous nine-game road trip with a sour taste in their mouths.
But even without the disastrous fifth inning, the Giants simply had no answer for Dickey, who was two outs away from recording his fourth career one-hitter and his first complete game with the Blue Jays before allowing two runners to reach base.
"He was great," Gregor Blanco said. "[Dickey's knuckleball] is different. It's got a lot of movement. ... You don't know where the ball is going to go."
Blanco and Bochy both said they are glad the Giants have Thursday off before facing a non-knuckleball pitcher again, as an outing against a pitcher of Dickey's variety can throw off batters' timing when facing regular speeds again.
"When we faced him [in May] and then faced a regular pitcher, it seemed like he threw 150 mph," Blanco said. "It's good to have a day off and a clear mind."
After splitting the two-game set with the Blue Jays, the Giants now travel to face Arizona, Pittsburgh and Atlanta, clubs that would all qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today.
"We've had our struggles on the road and it has to change," Bochy said. "Hopefully a long road trip does that for us. We have to hunker down."