SAN FRANCISCO – Time and again, Barry Zito stands between the Giants and oblivion.
He's been the Giants' stopper in much bigger games than Thursday's 5-2 win over the A's at AT&T Park – a messy affair that prevented Oakland from completing a four-game sweep.
But Zito probably has not won a game the Giants wanted more while having so few of his pitches working. During long stretches of Thursday's conclusion of the Bay Bridge Series, the A's were one hit from putting an exclamation point on their dominance of the Giants this season.
Yet Zito was unyielding while doing psychological battle with every A's batter in a lineup that makes you pitch to them and is happy to take walks so the next guy can take an exasperated pitcher deep.
Zito walked six A's batters – a season high – and the A's tried hard to break him, as they had so many other pitchers while winning six in a row and 11 of 12.
The Giants not only had lost the first three games to the A's this week, they had lost 10 of their past 15. Their best hitter for the moment, second baseman Marco Scutaro, was out of the lineup with the same flu bug that affected first baseman Brandon Belt and third baseman Pablo Sandoval. Leadoff hitter Angel Pagan was still out because of a hamstring injury. Belt was mired in a horrible slump.
A loss Thursday would have sent the Giants with their tails between their legs to St. Louis, where the best team in the National League awaits. After that, there's a brutal stretch of tough opponents throughout June.
"This game was critical," manager Bruce Bochy said.
Somehow, Zito found strikes in a peephole of a strike zone, and he coaxed A's batters into biting on pitches they hit into big outs while leaving 10 men on base.
"I don't know how he did it," Bochy said. "It's amazing, really. He was like Houdini out there."
Zito's best pitch might have been that signature curve that drops into the strike zone like a seagull landing on the plate in search of snacks after each Giants home game.
But plate umpire Dan Iassogna wouldn't call them strikes. Zito's cutter was ragged at times, and he struggled with his fastball command.
His only clean inning was his last one, the sixth, after finishing with 117 laborious pitches – many tinged with imminent disaster.
There was the first inning, when the A's put runners on second and third with no outs after Coco Crisp smoked a double into left field and Jed Lowrie walked. An A's team loaded with swagger then pulled a double steal that put Crisp on third and Lowrie on second.
But Zito got out of the trouble, retiring Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson and Nate Freiman – the heart of a muscular A's lineup.
Zito gave up a run in the second inning courtesy of Andres Torres' failure to cleanly field Crisp's single to left as A's catcher Derek Norris headed for home. It was a big blunder by the Giants' emotional left fielder. But truth be told, Zito paid the price when, with two outs, he walked A's pitcher A.J. Griffin – who was standing in the batter's box for the second time in his pro career.
The A's 1-0 lead seemed a prelude for yet another dismal Giants loss until Zito escaped in the third inning after walking two batters before picking off Cespedes and getting Freiman to hit into a double play.
In the fifth inning, Zito got out of another jam by retiring Freiman.
Then Brett Pill, the pinch hitter Bochy sent in for Zito in the sixth, led off with a single, Brandon Crawford doubled, and Sandoval doubled to drive both of them in. Belt drove in two more runs to exorcise a 4-for-26 slump and give the Giants a 4-1 lead, their first multiple-run lead all week.
Zito was set up to earn an unlikely win, aided by A's defensive miscues and A's hitters going 2 for 10 with runners in scoring position.
"I had the juices flowing because that's a tough team," Zito said. "We always play the A's hard."
With intensity surging through both teams and their fans, you wish the A's and Giants could play each other more often.
Despite the loss, Oakland looks every bit like a contender and rival of the Texas Rangers.
The Giants are only 1 1/2 games behind Arizona despite making a major-league-leading 25 errors in May. They have had key injuries and prolonged slumps.
Neither team played particularly well Thursday, but both seem built for the postseason and are stocked with characters strong enough to win key games when necessary.
And, on Thursday, Zito stood out in the crowd.