SAN FRANCISCO -- Baseball players rarely can identify a single moment when a game or series shifted for them or their team. Football players never have a problem with this; their high-drama sport encourages recognition of climactic scenes. Baseball moments usually roll from one into another, unless the effect is as obvious as a bone-crushing linebacker's hit or, in the case of the Giants' playoff run, a Buster Posey grand slam.
When the new National League champions gathered in their clubhouse Monday night, many of them cited Barry Zito's 5-0 win in Game 5 as the revitalizer in a series that the Cardinals had apparently embalmed. "Barry showed us the way,'' Ryan Vogelsong said only minutes after first baseman Brandon Belt had used roughly the same words.
But an entire game isn't a moment. And this series definitely had a moment, one that belonged to Zito -- with a bat in his hand. His bunt single in the fourth inning Friday night was audacious, bordering on cheeky.
He made the call on his own, after noting that Cardinals third baseman David Freese was playing far back with a runner on board. Zito took a practice cut, a genuinely lusty swing with his hands low on the handle, as if he had real ambitions. It was a perfect bluff. He carefully pushed the bat out to meet the next pitch, and the ball toddled toward Freese, allowing the runner to score and Zito to reach first safely.
That was when it became clear that the Giants really could win three straight games and cancel the Cardinals' plans to defend their world championship. The bunt hit fit a theme that pitching coach Dave Righetti had begun stressing a year before -- essentially, "no excuses.''
The Giants of 2011 scored fewer runs than any other team in the National League. The starting pitchers could count on nothing. Righetti reminded them to take full responsibility for every game, to the point of near-blasphemy in an age of specialization. "You could even get a hit every now and then,'' he said. Righetti wasn't engaging in curmudgeonly rhetoric. The man is not a crank. He meant it. He meant it even for Zito, who came to the National League five years ago with no discernible skills at the plate, save comedic ones.
The Giants' offense turned out to be much stronger this season, but the philosophy of pitchers' taking ownership of their game had to hold up. It's important for any team, but it's essential for the Giants, whose identity takes shape on the mound.
In the NLCS, three Giants starters recorded wins -- Vogelsong, Zito and Matt Cain. Each one also had a hit (Cain had two), and each collected an RBI. That may seem trifling in light of the 27-2 combined score of the Giants' four wins, but the piling on always happened after the pitchers knocked in their runs. It is especially significant that the three of them produced one more run than they allowed in the four wins.
The World Series won't allow the same opportunities. Both Cain and Vogelsong can expect to make their first starts in Detroit, where the designated hitter rule will be in effect. But the at-bats weren't really the issue. Taking command was. The Giants' pitchers had gone badly astray in this postseason, allowing 9-0 and 8-3 losses to the Reds and Cardinals. They didn't see a starter get through the sixth inning for the first six games.
They halfway pulled themselves together during their comeback from an 0-2 deficit against the Reds, but excellence eluded them as a group until those last three games against the Cardinals. The 9-0 win in Game 7 owed most of its gaudiness to the solid bats of Marco Scutaro, Angel Pagan and Brandon Belt, plus the oddly splintered one of Hunter Pence. Its substance, however, came from Cain's right arm. He did not throw a pristine game. He needed substantial help from his defense. He needed the Cardinals, one of the smartest-hitting teams in the game, to go after his mistakes the wrong way. They obliged.
The team that wouldn't die yielded to its fraternal twin, the team that loves to play possum. Now the Giants get Detroit's terminators. Their rotation of guys whose fastballs live primarily in the 91 mph neighborhood will meet the team whose ace throws change-ups close to that speed. Justin Verlander is expected to open against Zito, whose fastball rents a trailer outside the gates of the 91 mph community.
The matchup sounds absurd and sublime, in equal measure. Zito has as much chance of winning as Game 7 did of ending in a monsoon. The Bay Area never gets real rain in the fall -- even occasional spritzes are unusual. Yet there was Scutaro in the final minutes with his head back, drinking in raindrops, and his arms spread wide, looking like a whimsical version of the lead character in "The Shawshank Redemption'' after he finds his freedom.
It was a lovely moment, captured perfectly on television. But it wasn't THE moment. Zito's bunt traveled less than 75 feet, but it took the Giants into another realm, down a rabbit hole. These days, that feels like home to them.