SAN FRANCISCO -- Watching Barry Zito pitch during 2002, when he won the American League Cy Young Award with Oakland, prompted a simple question: How does this guy ever lose?Nine years later, it's tempting to entertain the thought that Zito has recaptured that form. Zito sustained his recent excellence Thursday night, waltzing through eight innings and leading the Giants to a 2-1 victory over the San Diego Padres. A gathering of 41,521, the 41st consecutive sellout crowd at AT&T Park, watched Zito improve to 3-0 with a 1.29 ERA in his three starts since missing close to 2 1/2 months with a sprained right foot. The left-hander yielded just four hits and, more impressively, walked none for the first time while pitching at least eight innings since Sept. 30, 2007, against the Dodgers. Once again, as was the case when he ranked among the AL's elite, Zito's curveball yo-yoed in and out of the strike zone, teasing hitters. That made his fastball all the more effective. One such instance occurred in the fourth inning, when Zito struck out Ryan Ludwick with a mere 84 mph fastball to strand Chris Denorfia on third base. Zito (3-1) was reserved and philosophical afterward. "You work hard, you bust your tail over the course of a career and sometimes things are better than not," he said. "I don't really know how to explain things. I just felt good." "Good" might have been an understatement regarding Zito, who lapsed only when Ludwick delivered a one-out homer in the seventh inning. "That's the best command I've seen 'Z' have out there on the mound in a game," catcher Eli Whiteside said. "He's always got it on the side, but tonight he took it out there to the mound and threw the ball as good as I've seen him throw it." Zito acknowledged that he kept his pitches in the strike zone's nether regions. That definitely matched the Padres' perceptions. "He kept his offspeed pitches down," said catcher Rob Johnson. "His curveball, changeup, cutter ... he kept all of them down." The Giants also provided ample defensive support for Zito. Center fielder Aaron Rowand caught up with Ludwick's warning-track drive leading off the second inning. Third baseman Pablo Sandoval dove to smother Orlando Hudson's fifth-inning smash, then straightened and threw powerfully to first base for the out. Two innings later, Sandoval made a deft short-hop pickup of Jesus Guzman's grounder before recording another assist. Giants manager Bruce Bochy reiterated that Zito has performed with a renewed attitude since injuring himself. "More than anything, just the confidence he's going out there with," Bochy said. "Coming back off his rehab, he had a different look out there. I think he has a better perspective on baseball in general. He told me that." Zito hadn't defeated the Padres since Aug. 23, 2008. Since then, he went 0-6 with a 5.83 ERA against them in a span of nine starts. This decision not only dissolved Zito's personal losing streak, but also enabled the Giants to split the four-game series -- an admirable accomplishment, since San Diego won the first two games. "I say this so many times, 'It's all about being resilient,'" Bochy said. The duration of Zito's outing enabled the Giants to avoid taxing their bullpen in the wake of Wednesday's 14-inning win. The only reliever San Francisco needed was Brian Wilson, who coaxed Chase Headley's game-ending double-play grounder to seal his 25th save in 29 opportunities. As grateful as Bochy was for the victory, he sounded as if he planned to ponder the Giants' limp offense a little more before Friday's series opener against the resurgent New York Mets. The Giants are 19-4 in one-run decisions at home, but Bochy wouldn't mind seeing them win a lopsided affair, as they did a couple of times during last week's trip to Chicago and Detroit.
"Pitching hasn't been an issue, and now to have another good arm, that's a nice luxury," Bochy said."I will say that we need to get this offense going a bit more."Facing Padres rookie Cory Luebke (2-3), San Francisco again mustered minimal production. Whiteside opened the scoring by leading off the third inning with his third homer of the season. The Giants added the eventual winning run in the sixth inning on Miguel Tejada's double off the third-base bag, Sandoval's single, which extended his hitting streak to 18 games, and Pat Burrell's RBI single, a grounder to right field on an 0-2 pitch. The victory was the Giants' 50th, marking the first time they have reached that total before the All-Star break since 2003.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.