Long ball fuels Zito past Twins

Long ball fuels Zito past Twins

OAKLAND -- The A's celebrated the start of June in much the same manner they said goodbye to May: Three home runs and a shutout.

Barry Zito extended his streak of consecutive quality starts to seven with seven innings of four-hit work, while Frank Thomas, Mark Kotsay and Dan Johnson went deep to give Oakland a 4-0 win over Minnesota on Thursday in the opener of a four-game series at McAfee Coliseum.

Even the beleaguered A's bullpen had a banner night. Kiko Calero worked a perfect eighth, and Huston Street wrapped things up by erasing memories of his blown save Wednesday and pitching a scoreless ninth.

"This," said A's general manager Billy Beane, "would be the template for everybody."

"I don't think you plan for shutouts, but yeah, this is what you're looking for," added manager Ken Macha. "Getting some sense of order in the bullpen is a priority, and when your starter gives you seven zeros, that's a big help."

It was a quick one, too. One hour, 57 minutes. Twins starter Boof Bonser made more mistakes than Zito, but he threw fewer pitches in his seven innings of five-hit work than did his counterpart, 94 to 97, unintentionally aiding Zito along the way.

"You always want big innings from the offense, and that's worth the wait," Zito said. "But you also want to get back out there to stay in rhythm and not get stale. The way [Bonser] was getting in and out of there definitely helped."

Zito (5-4), who has lost just once in his past nine starts, lowered his ERA to 1.13 over his past seven starts while striking out five without a walk. He hasn't strung together eight quality starts since putting up 12 in a row at the end of the 2001 season.

"Zito, he didn't let us breathe at all," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He had everything working. He had his changeup, the fastball -- he was locating it, and he had a great breaking ball. He kept us off-balance and we just got out-pitched tonight."

"It's a familiar feeling," Zito said. "The key is to not worry about trying to maintain what you're doing. ... Each start is a new start, and while momentum is great, it's not something tangible or something you can count on. You just have to keep focusing on that one pitch, that one inning, that one game."

If not for one game, the seven-run beatdown the Yankees administered on Opening Night, Zito's ERA for the year would be 2.07 over 11 starts. Even with that debacle, after which his ERA was 47.25, Thursday's gem lowered it to 2.87 for the year.

"This is as good as I've seen him," Beane said. "And at the best time, too."

Macha echoed that sentiment, pointing to Zito's win in Texas on Saturday as an example. With the bullpen worn down, Zito went 7 1/3 innings against one of the most explosive offenses in baseball -- in one of the biggest launching pads of a ballpark in the game -- to snap Oakland's season-high eight-game losing streak.

"He was good tonight; don't get me wrong," Macha said. "But the Texas game -- the need to win that game was huge. ... Those are the games you need your ace to win, and Barry's done an awful lot of that this year."

As a bonus Thursday, Zito recorded the 1,000th strikeout of his career in his 200th career start (the A's are 120-80 in those games). It took a call down from the pressbox to alert the dugout of the milestone, and fortunately for Zito, none of the three pitches he threw after fanning Lew Ford for No. 1,000 were fouled into the seats before catcher Jason Kendall was able to roll the ball safely out of play.

It eventually made its way to Zito, who hopes to give it some company before he's done.

"It's great, but I plan to play this game a long time," he said. "Maybe someday I'll be able to go for a bigger number."

That wasn't the only milestone reached by an Athletic on Thursday. When Thomas pumped his 12th homer of the year -- and second in two days -- in the second inning, it gave him 1,494 career RBIs, moving him past Dave Parker and into sole possession of 45th place among baseball's all-time leaders.

It also was Thomas' 921st career extra-base hit, moving him past Willie McCovey and into a tie for 42nd place all-time, but the Big Hurt is more focused on now than on history, and right now things are good.

On May 21, he was batting .178 with seven homers and 19 RBIs. Since May 22, when he homered twice in his first game in Chicago as an opponent, he's batting .400 (14-for-35) with five homers and nine RBIs.

"It was a rough first two months for me," Thomas said, "but I'm starting to come around."

Added Macha: "It says a lot about his ability to be doing what he's been doing. It's been a tremendous turnaround for him."

Four innings after Thomas left the yard, Kotsay hit a two-run blast to right-center field for his 100th career homer -- 359 behind Thomas, who ranks 27th on that list. Johnson closed to within 441 of Thomas with a solo poke in the seventh to close the scoring.

"It's a new month, and we're gonna be getting some key guys back here pretty soon," Zito said of the impending returns of Rich Harden, Esteban Loaiza and Milton Bradley. "We're not out of the woods yet, but every little bit helps."

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