ST. LOUIS — The Budweiser was flowing all over town. The champagne was on ice in the clubhouse. The St. Louis Cardinals were one victory from the World Series, and all that stood between them and a wild civic celebration was a pitcher a decade removed from his glory days.
Barry William Zito could not reach back for a 94 mph-fastball. He is not equipped with those any more. But he could reach back into his memory for a double shot of confidence and precision, and that was good enough to breathe new life into the San Francisco Giants.
Zito threw 7 2/3 of the most improbable shutout innings in postseason history Friday night, leading the Giants to a 5-0 victory in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. The man who won a Cy Young award 10 years ago did not dispute the suggestion that this was the greatest start of his career.
“Probably the biggest one for me,” he said.
The Cardinals lead the best-of-seven series three games to two, and yet the Giants survived a do-or-die Game 5 to get exactly what they wanted: Games 6 and 7 in San Francisco, with their two best pitchers lined up to start.
The Giants now have won each of Zito’s last 13 starts. It was Zito, of all people, who became the first San Francisco starter to pitch into the eighth inning this postseason.
“I couldn’t be happier for him,” Giants Manager Bruce Bochy said.
The Giants bunched four hits in the fourth inning — good for four runs, all unearned. They got two hits in the other eight innings, one a home run from Pablo Sandoval.
The key play: The Giants had men on first and second and one out in the fourth, when St. Louis pitcher Lance Lynn fielded a comebacker and tried for the double play instead of taking the sure out at first base.
Lynn’s throw to second base hit the bag and caromed into center field. One run scored, Brandon Crawford singled home two more, and Zito singled home the fourth run by dropping a magnificent bunt.
“He surprised a lot of people there,” Bochy said, “including us.”
It has been six years since the Giants lavished $126 million upon Zito, pushing aside Barry Bonds and anointing Zito as the face of the franchise.
That did not last, and neither did his fastball. Tim Lincecum emerged, and so did Matt Cain. So did Madison Bumgarner, and even Jonathan Sanchez. In 2010, when the Giants won the World Series, they omitted Zito from their playoff roster. Instead of causing a stir, he pitched simulated games, just in case someone else got hurt.
They gave him one playoff start this year, and he did not survive the third inning. When Bumgarner’s arm essentially gave out, they gave Zito one more, basically out of desperation.
“Tough kid,” pitching coach Dave Righetti said. “He’s not a kid. Tough man.”
Zito did not overpower anyone, but neither he did fear putting an 84-mph pitch in the vicinity of home plate. He can’t win for nibbling around the corners.
“I was living pitch to pitch, moment to moment,” Zito said. “The defense picked me up.”
Carlos Beltran got to second base in the first inning, but third baseman Sandoval dived to catch a line drive and end the inning.
The Cardinals had runners at second and third and none out in the second inning, but Daniel Descalso struck out — swinging, at an 84-mph fastball. After an intentional walk, Lynn grounded into a double play.
In the fourth inning, Allen Craig led off with a double but did not score. In the fifth, San Francisco right fielder Hunter Pence and second baseman Marco Scutaro each robbed the Cardinals of a hit with magnificent defensive plays.