ST. LOUIS -- The man who saved the San Francisco Giants' season has spent the past six seasons being defined more by his paycheck stubs than his highlight reels. And that's never a good sign.
But after the masterpiece he threw on a pressurized Friday evening in October, everything has changed for Barry Zito.
Now he has Game 5 of the 2012 National League Championship Series -- an elimination-game gem for the ages.
And now he has something else -- a worldwide-trending Twitter hashtag for the ages: #rallyzito.
Not necessarily in that order.
After the 7 2/3 artful shutout innings he spun Friday in the Giants' season-resuscitating 5-0 win over the Cardinals, Zito confessed he had no idea what a #rallyzito was. It was hard to blame him. He had other things on his mind. And the Twitter-verse definitely wasn't one of them.
"I tried Twitter a couple years ago," he said. "And it was a pretty devastating experience for me."
But one of these days, if the impact of this #rallyzito phenomenon ever hits home, he'll be shocked to learn that for Giants fans from Stockton to Stockholm, he somehow become part of one of the most inspirational hashtag outbursts on planet earth.
By the time the Giants finished off a win that forced the NLCS back to San Francisco with the Cardinals now leading three games to two, the mystical powers of #rallyzito-ism had pretty much taken over modern civilization.
Among trending Twitter topics, it ranked No. 2 in the entire world -- yup, we said the world -- ahead of even #SoyTanRebelde and (yes, it's true) #AdrianaEstevesDeservesAnOscar. We're not sure what that says about the world. But apparently, there are a lot of Giants fans tweeting in it.
"If they want to join our bandwagon, man, let 'em jump on it," said Zito's fellow Giants left-hander Jeremy Affeldt, "because whatever they did, it worked. So maybe we need a #RallyVogelsong now."
Hmmm. Why do we have a feeling that, with Ryan Vogelsong ready to start Game 6 for this team, that's a hashtag that's about to spring to life in, oh, the next 14 seconds? But if it does, it'll have to go some to top #rallyzito.
Orlando Cepeda -- right, the Orlando Cepeda -- fired off a #rallyzito tweet Friday night, then admitted, "I was told to say Rally Zito." Other folks digitally placed Zito into thousands of the most inspirational photos ever circulated (or edited, at least). We could try to sum them up. But you literally need to see this to believe it.
Asked whether he thought this meant the Giants were now more popular in Sweden or Switzerland, Affeldt scratched his beard, then replied: "Hey, man. I'm not sure. But we might as well get 'em on board."
Well, however beloved the Giants might have been globally at that very moment, they couldn't possibly have been more popular than Barry Zito was in his own clubhouse at that special moment in time.
"I think everyone in here," Affeldt said, "is ecstatic for this guy."
His teammates have watched this man spend the past six seasons walking tall, speaking softly and maintaining never-ending professionalism while pretty much everyone around him was making up lists that attempted to demonstrate he was the most worthless $126 million athlete who ever lived.
So how perfect was it that one of the first men to visit the clubhouse after Zito's finest moment as a Giant was the man who signed him to that contract -- or at least signed off on it -- former Giants managing general partner Peter Magowan.
Asked whether this was what he'd imagined when the Giants signed Zito to that stunning seven-year, $126 million megadeal back in December 2006, Magowan replied: "Exactly. This was what we were hoping we would get. This was the best game he's ever pitched as a Giant."
And friends, there is no doubt -- none -- about that. Counting the postseason, this was Zito's 174th start as a Giant. Only six other times, in all those other starts, did he put up nothing but zeroes for 7 2/3 innings or longer. But none of those games resembled this game.
This was October. This was the Cardinals, a team that went 21-9 in its final 30 regular-season games started by a left-hander. And most of all, this was about survival.
Barry Zito was all that stood between the Giants and their favorite pitching wedges. And now, said Peter Magowan, "We've got a shot to play in the World Series, because of what he did tonight."
This wasn't the first postseason win of Zito's career. But it was his first since 2006, when he outdueled Johan Santana in a division series classic, back when he still worked in Oakland. And whatever that one meant to him at the time, on this night he had no trouble dropping that start to No. 2 on his list of favorite trips to the mound ever.
This game, he said, was now "No. 1 for me -- because all the other playoff stuff was in another uniform."
But he knew what this particular game meant to the men in this uniform. So he headed for the middle of the diamond, determined to be "living pitch to pitch, moment to moment."
As 47,075 members of Redbird Nation waited for him to implode, he kicked off his night by wriggling out of first-inning trouble, when Pablo Sandoval summoned his inner Brooks Robinson to make a tumbling catch of a two-out Allen Craig screamer in foul territory.
Then came a scary two-on, no-out mess in the second. But Zito survived that one, too, by whiffing Daniel Descalso on one of his patented 84 mile an hour "fastballs" and then (after an intentional walk) inducing Cardinals starter Lance Lynn to become the first pitcher to hit into a bases-loaded double play in a postseason game since Rick Sutcliffe did it in the 1989 NLCS.
And when the Giants came stampeding off the field after that escape act, that, said catcher Buster Posey, "was one of the big turning points in this game."
No doubt. Zito would allow just two of the next 18 hitters to reach base, hanging one doughnut after another on the scoreboard. And that gave the Giants time to mount their most important rally of this series -- a four-run eruption in the fourth.
Some day, if San Francisco wins this NLCS, people will look back on Brandon Crawford's two-run, two-out single as one of the pivotal moments of this entire season. But for pure shock value, it will be the final RBI hit of that inning that eyewitnesses will remember.
Because it came on a bunt single by Barry Zito.
There were two outs, and runners on first and third. And the Cardinals played the infield back -- possibly because, according to Baseball-Reference.com, Zito had never laid down a bunt single in his career. But he dropped Lynn's second pitch down the third-base line, legged it out and let the shockwaves sink in among his worldwide Twitter admirers.
"That was awesome, man," Affeldt said. "He waited 13 years to pull this one out of his hat."
When Zito was asked whether he thought the data that indicated he owned no bunt hits before this one was true, he confirmed it.
"Yeah, I do," he said. "I'm known for my Arabian horse gallop."
Right. Sure he is. And his Arabian Twitter followers, too, obviously. But what mattered most on this night was how Barry Zito pitched -- and what it meant to the team that's been sending him those hefty paychecks all these years.
According to PitchFX, he didn't throw a pitch faster than 86 mph all night (and threw only two that traveled that fast). But he still managed to rack up four strikeouts with his fastball -- his most in any start all year. And he had such spectacular command of all five pitches, he was able to thoroughly bamboozle a lineup that's been devouring left-handed pitching all year.
"He doesn't pitch in patterns," Affeldt said. "He has his own way. I mean, I can't even follow him. Like I'm trying to follow pitch to pitch when he's out there, and he just thows to a situation.
"He knows he's not throwing 90 miles an hour anymore," Affeldt went on. "But he's got the slider, the cutter, the curve, the sinker, up, down, the slower curve ball. I mean, it's really hard. I think most hitters would tell you they'd rather face 100 miles an hour straight than a guy who throws 86 with movement and can cut, sink, flip it up there, 'eephus' it up there, whatever it takes."
Well, if you need any verification of that, here it comes -- from the Cardinals' David Freese.
"You get wide-eyed when the ball is mid-80s letter high," Freese said. "He understands that, I'm sure, over the course of his career, getting swings on high heaters. You know, then he just changes eye-sights and gets you moving one way or another, in or out, up or down, and he finds a way to get you out."
Wait, someone interrupted. These guys still call that a "heater" even though the radar says it's traveling slower than a rent-a-car?
"Absolutely," Freese said. "When a guy drops in a lot of off-speed [stuff] and then comes back with a heater, I don't care if it's 85. It looks harder than that."
And that sums up both Barry Zito and his baseball team. They always make it LOOK harder than it really is -- to them, anyway.
They've now played four potential elimination games in this postseason. They've won every one of them. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, they're just the seventh team ever to win four elimination games in a row in the same postseason. But here's the difference between the 2012 Giants and the other teams on that list: The Giants are the only team in history to win all four on the road.
Well, they have two more elimination games ahead of them now if they're going to win this series. But thanks to the man on the mound Friday night, they're done with the road-game survivor-series portion of these festivities. They get to play Game 6 and Game 7 in AT&T Park, with their two most dependable starters, Vogelsong and Matt Cain, lined up to pitch those games. And they have no complaints about that.
They won't have Barry Zito on the mound in either game, of course. But it might not matter -- because his hashtag, which just might be trending on the moon by Sunday, isn't going anywhere.