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Zito nearly has his zero hour

Zito nearly has his zero hour

OAKLAND -- A night after A's righty Rich Harden held the Rangers hitless into the eighth inning, A's lefty Barry Zito followed suit.

And just like Harden, Zito saw his bid for history end five outs from the finish line. Kevin Mench homered with one out in the eighth, and Zito settled for eight innings of two-hit work in a tidy 7-2 victory over Texas in the second game of a four-game series at McAfee Coliseum.

"Kind of freaky that it'd happen the same way two nights in a row," Zito said. "But this is a freaky game, right? Bottom line, we've pitched a couple of great games against a team that can do some serious damage."

That those games were pitched by Zito, who is on the kind of roll that helped him win the 2002 American League Cy Young Award, and Harden, whom many expect to be a Cy Young candidate for years to come, wasn't lost on the Rangers.

"We got smothered by two of the best pitchers in the league," said Texas shortstop Michael Young. "I'd be concerned if the jayvee kid down the street shut us down, but Zito and Harden are tough."

Added A's manager Ken Macha of the back-to-back gems: "You can't pitch much better than that."

Nor can you play defense much better than the A's played behind Zito. No fewer than six great plays took place behind Zito, including a brilliant running catch by center fielder Mark Kotsay to track down a deep drive into the right-center gap by Hank Blalock with two out in the seventh.

"At that point, yeah, I'm thinking, 'Maybe,' " Zito admitted. "You need that kind of thing to do something special like throw a no-hitter, and the guys made some special plays out there tonight."

Shortstop Bobby Crosby and second baseman Marco Scutaro each turned in tough off-balance plays on slow rollers toward the bag, and first baseman Dan Johnson made two spectacular sliding grabs of popups in foul ground.

Johnson also saved A's third baseman Eric Chavez from an error with a nice tag after being pulled off the bag with a high throw to open the eighth.

But on Zito's very next pitch, his 95th of the game, Mench clubbed a no-doubter that banged off the "Different Brand of Baseball" sign over the home run line atop the out-of-town scoreboard above the left-field wall.

The pitch was a high fastball that Zito meant to get inside. It stayed out over the middle of the plate.

"Losing the no-no [stunk], but it was my own fault," Zito said. "It [ticked] me off because I didn't really commit that pitch. I didn't pick a spot and attack it like I normally do. I just lost focus for that one pitch, and Mench made me pay."

With the crowd of 22,423 paying tribute to Zito's effort with a standing ovation, catcher Jason Kendall immediately ran to the mound for a quick chat.

"He just said, 'Don't worry about it. We're still sweet,' " Zito said.

Zito, who issued walks in the first and sixth innings, responded by striking out Richard Hidalgo. Rod Barajas then doubled, but Zito left him at second by getting Mark DeRosa on a fly ball to left field on his 108th and final pitch of the night.


"It's up there with a lot of other things every pitcher wants to achieve. And really, you've got to expect it every time out. ... Nobody goes out there conceding that you're going to give up hits, you know what I mean? You go out there every inning thinking, '1-2-3, back in the dugout.' "
-- Barry Zito, on his no-hit bid

Kendall said Zito's bread-and-butter pitch, his curveball, was as good as he's seen it. Whereas Harden tends to overpower people, Zito relies on a big bender to set up the rest of an expanding repertoire that, since the All-Star break of last year, has grown from three pitches (four-seam fastball, curveball, change) to six (two-seamer, slider, cutter).

"I feel like I say this after every one of Barry's starts, but that curveball is a joke," Kendall said. "When he's throwing that thing for strikes, good luck, because the rest of his [stuff] gets that much better."

Zito, who has allowed six runs in his past five starts -- five on solo homers -- for a 1.41 ERA, has a four-game winning streak and has won six of his past eight decisions to improve to 7-8 with a 3.74 ERA overall.

He started the season 1-6 with a 4.85 ERA.

"Barry's pretty much been on a roll for six weeks," Macha said. "What looked like a bleak season for him [has seen] a dramatic turnaround."

Macha, who was Oakland's bench coach when Zito won his Cy Young, went so far as to say that Zito is pitching better now than he did in 2002. And, apparently, he has some company.

"[White Sox slugger] Paul Konerko, at the All-Star Game, told me that [Zito] has a little more fastball now," Macha said. "He said, 'You have to make up your mind a little sooner, and that makes his curveball and changeup that much more effective.'"

Zito agreed that he's as good as ever.

"My curveball is more consistent ... and I'm much stronger mentally as far as committing to and sticking with my game," he said. "That's why that one pitch is killing me right now."

Zito said he threw a no-hitter in high school but walked 11 in the same game. Unlike most big league pitchers, who view talking about no-hitters as taboo, Zito openly admits to wanting one before he's done.

"It's up there with a lot of other things every pitcher wants to achieve," he said. "And really, you've got to expect it every time out. ... Nobody goes out there conceding that you're going to give up hits, you know what I mean? You go out there every inning thinking, '1-2-3, back in the dugout.' "

The A's, who have won five in a row and 15 of their last 18 to move a season-high three games over .500 and within three games of the Wild Card-leading Orioles, gave Zito a big early lead by jumping all over Rangers starter John Wasdin (0-1), who gave up seven runs -- six earned -- on six hits over two-plus innings.

Jay Payton, acquired Wednesday, followed Scott Hatteberg's RBI double in the second with a two-run homer in his first at-bat for Oakland, and rookie Nick Swisher followed with a solo shot later in the frame.

"Welcome to Jay Payton," cracked Macha.

An inning later, after singles by Kotsay and Crosby, Chavez homered for the second night in a row to chase Wasdin.

Since Payton's arrival Thursday, A's starters have allowed a run on four hits over 17 innings. In the past 23 games, the starters are 17-3 with a 2.22 ERA.

"If we keep doing this every night," deadpanned Payton, "we're going to be in pretty good shape."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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