ST. LOUIS — The big curveball was back, and Barry Zito mixed in some well-placed fastballs, too.
It was just like the good old days.
Zito was at his best Friday night, pitching San Francisco back into the NL championship series with a 5-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals that narrowed its deficit to 3-2.
“All things considered, you know, there’s definitely some playoff memories there, but they were in a different uniform,” the soft-tossing lefty said after his first playoff win in six years sent the series back to San Francisco.
“This was probably the biggest one for me.”
Game 6 will begin Sunday in the twilight at AT&T Park, with Ryan Vogelsong pitching against the Cardinals’ Chris Carpenter.
“I’m sure Carpenter is going to be on top of his game, as always,” Vogelsong said. “I’m going to have to be sharp because with him on the mound one run can lose a game for you.”
Zito looked like the same guy who won 23 games and the 2002 AL Cy Young Award with the Athletics. He retired 11 batters in a row in one stretch while scattering six hits with six strikeouts in 7 2-3 innings.
Giants catcher Buster Posey twice tapped Zito on the chest when he was pulled in the eighth. It was Zito’s fifth postseason win but first since 2006, shortly before he left the A’s and signed a $126 million, seven-year contract with San Francisco.
“This is definitely it for me,” Zito said. “Coming here, especially doing it in a Giants uniform. A lot of people were saying stuff about A’s days. And for me, the most important thing is doing everything for San Francisco right now.”
Zito was left off the postseason roster when the Giants won the 2010 World Series because he had pitched so poorly.
Zito’s 15-8 record this year was his first winning season since joining the Giants. He started Game 4 of the division series against the Reds and lasted only 2 2-3 innings.
“I couldn’t be happier for him,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “He had it all going. He put on quite a show.”
The defending champion Cardinals might have thrown away a chance to clinch a second straight World Series trip. Pitcher Lance Lynn’s toss on a possible forceout deflected off the second-base bag, paving the way for the Giants’ four-run fourth.
Lynn was trying to turn the front end of a double play.
“I turned to throw it and I just threw it in the ground,” he said. “Just a bad play. You make a good throw there and we are out of the inning. It was one of those times where I just short-armed it a little bit.”
Pablo Sandoval homered for the second straight night and Zito made an extremely rare offensive contribution with a perfectly executed bunt for an RBI single.
The Giants also made several nice plays behind Zito, including a juggling catch in right by Hunter Pence and a spectacular sliding stop by second baseman Marco Scutaro to rob pinch-hitter Shane Robinson on consecutive at-bats.
Once again this postseason, the Giants benefited from a big error.
Needing three straight wins at Cincinnati to avoid elimination in the division series, San Francisco began its comeback on a bobble by third baseman Scott Rolen in the 10th inning that gave the Giants the go-ahead run in Game 3.
The Giants improved to 4-2 on the road this postseason and have won Zito’s last 13 starts, with the last setback on Aug. 2. They’re averaging more than six runs a game during the streak, although the left-hander didn’t need much help in this one.
Lynn, an 18-game winner his first year in the rotation, failed to make it out of the fourth for the second time in the series.
“I didn’t give up a hit until the fourth, I had good stuff, it was just another bad inning,” Lynn said. “This time of year, they are going to blow up on you, if you give them that extra out. And I gave them that extra out.”
The Cardinals are seeking consecutive pennants for the first time since 1967-68, and trying to advance for the second year in a row as a wild-card entry. One more win would set up a rematch of the 2006 World Series against the Tigers, which the Cardinals took in five games.
Before the game, Jon Jay and David Freese spent time on the podium discussing why the Cardinals have been so successful, but manager Mike Matheny didn’t think his players relaxed.
“There’s distractions from you guys every day,” Matheny told reporters after the game. “That’s part of the gig. Just today we had a guy come out and pitch us tough, and we didn’t get the execution when we needed it. That’s what it all comes down to.”
Lynn struck out five of his first 10 batters, sailing through the first three innings with no balls hit out of the infield. His undoing was a wild throw off the second-base bag attempting to get a forceout on a comebacker that paved the way for San Francisco’s four-run fourth.
The Giants had runners on first and second with one out when Lynn gloved a tapper by Pence, wheeled and threw while shortstop Pete Kozma hustled to second. But Lynn threw a low dart off the bag with the ball bounding into shallow right field and Marco Scutaro scoring without a play from second.
Eighth-place hitter Brandon Crawford singled up the middle with the bases loaded on a full-count pitch with two outs, as Lynn just missed with a kick save for two more runs. Zito, who has just 30 career hits in 310 at-bats in the regular season with nine RBIs, laid down a perfect bunt for a fourth run.
Lynn has allowed four runs in both of his NLCS starts, although all four were unearned in Game 5. Matheny was noncommittal about the Cardinals’ pitching plans if they made it to the World Series.
One possible rotation replacement is Jake Westbrook, coming off a pulled oblique muscle, who pronounced himself ready after throwing a simulated game earlier in the week.
“Moving forward, he’s been a very, very good pitcher for us this season,” Matheny said of Lynn. “And we don’t look any further past right now, for right now.”
Zito’s only trouble came in the second when Yadier Molina and David Freese, both swinging on the first pitch, opened the inning with a single and double. Lynn, a career .056 hitter including the postseason, hit into a bases-loaded double play to end the threat.
Lynn was 3 for 50 with 36 strikeouts during the regular season, going hitless his last 42 at-bats.
NOTES: Standing room attendance for Game 5 was 47,075, a franchise best for league championship play, topping the previous best in Game 4 by 13. ... Actor Matthew Morrison sang the national anthem. ... Longtime Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon bounced a ceremonial first pitch from in front of the mound to Lou Brock, teammates on the last St. Louis team to go to consecutive World Series in 1967 and ‘68. ... Cardinals slugger Carlos Beltran has 10 career stolen bases in the postseason. ... Matt Carpenter, who subbed for Beltran in Games 3 and 4, is a career .529 hitter (9 for 17) against the Giants counting the postseason, with a homer and four RBIs. ... Cardinals rookie RHP Trevor Rosenthal struck out four in two scoreless innings. He has fanned 11 in 6 2-3 scoreless innings in the postseason while allowing just one hit. ... The Cardinals were shut out for the first time since Game 4 of the 2011 World Series, a 4-0 loss at Texas. ... Freese doubled in the second and has gotten at least one hit in all of his 14 postseason starts at home. It’s the third-longest home hitting streak to start a postseason career.