SAN FRANCISCO — Corporal Nick Kimmel of the U.S. Marines, a triple amputee, unleashed the most compelling throw made at AT&T Park on Monday when he stood on his prosthetic legs and tossed the ceremonial first pitch.
For the Giants, it was fitting that Barry Zito made the next delivery toward home plate — and 92 others after that spanning seven-plus innings in San Francisco’s 4-2 victory.
Zito is the founder of Strikeouts For Troops, a charity that assists wounded soldiers, usually in the form of providing transportation for or to loved ones. If any Giant were to draw extra motivation from pitching on Memorial Day, it would be Zito, who has put his patriotic commitment into action for years.
Kimmel met several big leaguers during Spring Training this past March at Zito’s annual Strikeouts For Troops function, when the left-hander brings dozens of servicemen and women to Scottsdale, Ariz., for a few days of relaxation and baseball. Since then, Zito remained aware of Kimmel’s physical progress.
“He’s been in touch with us. It’s such an inspiration,” Zito said. “We keep cheering him on. The fact that he came up and did this was just awesome.”
Zito has weathered more than his share of adversity on the field, having struggled more than he has thrived in his six years with the Giants. Such problems, Zito said, are put into perspective when compared to Kimmel’s experience.
“It’s something we hear about, these injuries that happen, but until you really see it and look in the whites of someone’s eyes and you really understand their plight, that’s when you thank God for all your blessings,” Zito said. “… Those are some big obstacles to overcome.”
Overcoming the memory of his previous outing at Milwaukee was among Zito’s primary obstacles. He endured his worst outing of the season in an 8-5 loss last Wednesday, allowing eight runs (four earned) and five hits while walking four in three innings.
But Zito (4-2) put aside that setback to lead the Giants to their third consecutive victory over Arizona in front of a charged-up crowd. He permitted five D-backs to reach scoring position but stranded four of them. His shakiest inning was the third, when Justin Upton’s ground-rule RBI double left runners on second and third with two outs. Zito escaped that jam by coaxing a harmless fly ball from Jason Kubel, who doubled one inning earlier and was 4-for-4 off him in his career.
Zito was relieved by right-hander Clay Hensley after yielding pinch-hitter John McDonald’s home run to open the eighth inning. Hensley retired all three hitters he faced before Santiago Casilla worked the ninth for his 13th save in 14 chances.
Zito, who recorded only three victories last season, has prevented himself from letting the results of any particular outing, positive or negative, affect him in his next appearance. His effort against the D-backs proved that he’s sticking to this game-to-game approach.
“It’s even more than that. It’s pitch to pitch,” Zito said. “If you feel like you pitched well the last four starts and that you’re going to [pitch well again], you’re going to have a wakeup call at some point. It’s the Major Leagues. We all get in an groove and we feel like we can cruise a little bit. But you can’t do that. You have to stay in the moment as much as possible. You’re not entitled to any success. You have to earn everything you get.”
The Giants had to earn their adequate offensive production against Trevor Cahill (2-5), who entered the game with a career 3-1 record and 2.16 ERA when facing the Giants. In the first, Gregor Blanco doubled, advanced to third on Brandon Crawford’s sacrifice bunt and scored while collaborating on a double-steal with Angel Pagan, who walked. Pagan scored on a single by Hector Sanchez, who crossed the plate moments later on Brandon Belt’s triple to right-center field.
The scene was set for a double-steal with the fleet pair of Blanco and Pagan on base.
“I saw the opportunity to go,” Blanco said. “I had a big lead from third base. The third-base coach [Tim Flannery] told me if they throw to second, go home.”
Arizona catcher Miguel Montero credited the approach of San Francisco’s hitters.
“The guys put good swings on the ball,” Montero said. “[Cahill] was probably a little bit up in the strike zone. In the bullpen, I saw him warming up and I was pretty excited because he looked pretty good. They came aggressive. They were taking hacks right away.”
Blanco also doubled home Emmanuel Burriss with one out in the second inning. But Blanco wasn’t finished contributing. Casilla courted trouble in the ninth by surrendering back-to-back, one-out singles to Paul Goldschmidt and Chris Young. Casilla struck out Montero before Ryan Roberts yanked a fly to deep right field. An extra-base hit and a tie score appeared likely until Blanco outraced the ball and caught it while looking over his left shoulder and crossing from the grass to the warning track. Blanco celebrated by brandishing the ball in his gloved right hand and pumping his other hand triumphantly.
Blanco didn’t realize he could make the catch until his sheer effort convinced him that he had a chance.
“When he hit it, I thought it was going to be a double or hit the wall,” Blanco said. “I just kept running and I said to myself, ‘You know what? You might be able to catch this ball.’”