SAN FRANCISCO Two years after he famously was left off the Giants' playoff roster, it seems an increasingly good bet Giants starter Barry Zito will make it this October.
It also seems an increasingly good bet the Giants will be in the playoffs after taking two of three games from the Los Angeles Dodgers over the weekend the capper a 4-0, Zito-led triumph Sunday night.
The Giants' high-priced left-hander with the aging boy-band persona notched his 11th win of the season, his most since 2007, with a trademark curveball that seemingly lulled a depleted Dodgers lineup to sleep.
It may have been Zito's biggest moment as a Giant yet.
With only 22 games left, Sunday's win boosted the Giants' lead over the Dodgers to 5 1/2 games in the National League West.
Not without their own deficiencies to confront in the coming weeks, the Giants are nonetheless ascending while the Dodgers seem to be fading.
Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw was scratched from Sunday's game with a sore hip. Center fielder Matt Kemp, the Dodgers' best player, missed the series' final two games with shoulder inflammation, and starter Chad Billingsley already is out for the season.
Given this, it was imperative for Zito to pitch better than the ragged starts when he often fell behind hitters in more losses than he and the Giants would care to remember.
After the Giants gift-wrapped Saturday's game to Los Angeles, a defeat on Sunday would have meant a bitter series loss and would have given life to a Dodgers team limping by.
"This was a critical game," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy.
Enter Zito, who radiated a confident bearing in contrast to past years when fans would grow restless in the galleries while his mind seemed anywhere but here.
That gorgeous looping curveball of his was as good as ever and was blended shrewdly into a repertoire that included surprise, surprise some strikeouts with Zito's mid-80s fastball.
Zito had four strikeouts, including shortstop Hanley Ramirez twice. Both times, Zito froze him with a called strike three with his fastball. The heart of the Dodgers' lineup was quiet.
"It was nice. The crowd was electric," Zito said.
Call it a long-deferred franchise payoff considering five sub-.500 seasons since Zito came to the Giants with a seven-year, $126 million contract. He was left off the 2010 playoff roster because he didn't deserve to be on it, but this season is different.
More than once Zito has won a game to halt a Giants losing streak or won a game to start one. He seems destined to post his first winning season as a Giant, which doesn't sound great considering his price tag, but has been huge this season given the struggles of Tim Lincecum.
"I've made my peace with what happened (in 2010)," Zito said after Sunday's win.
When asked about Zito's potential spot in the Giants' playoff plans, Bochy would have none of it: "It's too early. We'll talk about that when the time comes."
Then Bochy talked about Zito's comeback this season. "It's been a good year for him," he said. "He was on top of his game."
With a bullpen by committee, a revolving door in left field and assorted other brain-busting decisions, it's understandable why Bochy punted on the Zito question.
But how do you leave Zito out? The Giants are 17-11 in his 2012 starts and have won his last seven outings.
The Giants are nothing if not a puzzle with potential if assembled correctly by Bochy and their brass. Since being made the leadoff hitter, Angel Pagan has been a Giants fire starter and a hell of an exciting player.
He had two hits Sunday, including his 11th triple of the season. He also dashed home for the third Giants run on a fifth-inning sacrifice fly by Marco Scutaro.
Struggling right fielder Hunter Pence drove in two first-inning runs with a double, and catcher Buster Posey continued to make a case for the MVP award with a sixth-inning homer.
With all of this and bullpen arms coming to life, Zito is putting pressure on Bochy to make hard choices in the rotation. It's a great problem to have at this time of year.