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ATLANTA -- The fork in the road that Barry Zito frequently encounters during a ballgame rose to meet him relatively early Thursday afternoon.
Yunel Escobar led off the second inning with an improbable home run off the southpaw that grazed the right-field foul pole. It tied the score at 1 and, given the Braves' dominance in this series, seemed to portend another Giants meltdown and a Zito defeat.
Yet an entirely different scenario unfolded. Zito no-hit Atlanta from the third through sixth innings in a strong seven-inning effort and San Francisco scored four unearned eighth-inning runs to break the tie and vault to a much-needed 5-1 victory.
The outcome prevented the Braves from sweeping the four-game series and trimmed the Giants' deficit in the National League Wild Card standings to one game behind the idle Colorado Rockies. San Francisco and Colorado begin a three-game series Friday.
"It does a lot for the morale of the club," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said, less than 24 hours after
declaring that his club was being "tested" by absorbing six losses in seven games.
Several Giants helped guarantee that the skid wouldn't reach 1-7. Nate Schierholtz lined three singles and robbed Ryan Church of an extra-base hit with a leaping catch at the right-field wall. The grab left Schierholtz with scrapes and bruises covering the length of his left leg. Randy Winn and Fred Lewis contributed two-out run-scoring singles to the eighth-inning uprising. Catcher Bengie Molina threw out two Braves trying to steal bases. Jeremy Affeldt and Brian Wilson consumed the final two innings by blanking the Braves, who had won 10 of their previous 13 games.
But the starting pitcher typically does the most to chart a team's course. So it was with Zito (6-10), who snapped a personal two-game losing slide while allowing three hits. The first of those was Escobar's homer, a drive that seemed certain to curl foul before nicking the upright.
"You're not going to see a whole lot of home runs like that where it doesn't slice at all -- it stayed pretty true," Zito said. "You have to tip your cap, but it's a situation where I was still being aggressive in the at-bat. If I lose my aggressiveness and start nitpicking, that's more frustrating sometimes than giving up a home run."
So instead of tiptoeing through the rest of the game, as he has sometimes done when circumstances go awry, Zito maintained control of his pitches and himself -- even in an adventuresome fourth inning, when he walked the bases loaded and struck out the side.
Though this ranked among Zito's bigger victories during his three years with the Giants, he insisted that he didn't dwell on the game's importance and the need to halt a losing streak.
"You can't put added pressure on yourself," he said. "You just want to be as good as you can be and let the game come to you. I battled with command here and there. ... It was a grind to stay focused out there today."
Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones indicated that home-plate umpire Jeff Kellogg's ball-and-strike calls might have enhanced Zito's effectiveness.
"He was, how should I put this, maximizing the width and height of the strike zone," Jones said of Zito. "Up and down, it was a tough day for us. It certainly seemed like it was a lot bigger when he was out there than when our guys were out there. But that happens. Umpires have off days, too."
The Giants endured another off day offensively, scoring only on Pablo Sandoval's first-inning RBI double, until the eighth. Schierholtz lashed a leadoff single off the pitching arm of left-hander Mike Gonzalez (3-3). The resulting bruise knocked Gonzalez out of the game and brought on Boone Logan. Travis Ishikawa was credited with a single on a bunt to charging first baseman Casey Kotchman, who held the ball too long as he checked second base before throwing late to first.
Facing reliever Peter Moylan, Juan Uribe also bunted, tapping a high chopper. Moylan's throw hit Uribe and trickled away from second baseman Kelly Johnson, who was covering first base. That allowed Schierholtz to score, shattering the tie.
"We went to the ground attack," Bochy said.
Moylan struck out the next two batters, but Winn, whose .379 lifetime batting average against Atlanta is the highest among active players, singled home Ishikawa. Uribe followed him when Church's throw from right field skipped past third base. Lewis' single up the middle scored Winn.
Jones offered sincere praise for Winn.
"He's probably the last hitter that I want to see up with the game on the line," Jones said. "He's a professional hitter. He's going to put a good at-bat up, and he did. He got the base hit and then we started throwing the ball all over the place."