SAN FRANCISCO -- Leaving the mound with two runners on in the ninth inning and no outs, Barry Zito apologized to manager Bruce Bochy for not closing out the game.
But as he departed to a standing ovation from the AT&T Park crowd, Zito had very little to apologize for. He had shut out the Braves for eight innings, and though Jeremy Affeldt would allow the two inherited runners to score, Zito's masterful outing powered the Giants to a 5-2 win in Thursday's opener of the four-game series.
"He earned that shot to go out there and finish it," Bochy said.
The Giants sprang to a 5-0 lead with a four-run fifth inning in support of Zito, and they continued the success from their recent six-game road trip to advance three games ahead of the idle Dodgers atop the National League West standings.
"It feels good to help the team," Zito said. "We had a great road trip and a difficult homestand last time, so it's great momentum-wise to go out there and help the team get back on track."
Zito continued his dominance over the Braves, against whom he had entered the game 4-1 with a 2.03 ERA in six career starts. Before allowing singles to Martin Prado and Chipper Jones to start the ninth, Zito had allowed only three hits in eight innings while striking out five.
"He used all his pitches, and his breaking ball looked really good tonight and his fastball, too," Bochy said. "He pitched the way he had to, he had a different look tonight."
A soft single from Pablo Sandoval in the third drove in Angel Pagan from second base to break a scoreless tie before the Giants' big offensive burst in the fifth gave them a comfortable lead.
Hunter Pence started off the fifth-inning scoring by catching the Braves' infield off guard with a bunt single that scored Pagan from third. Brandon Belt later drilled a ball off sliding Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman to drive in Marco Scutaro, and Hector Sanchez drove in two more with a double to right field.
"I was as surprised as anybody," Bochy said of Pence's bunt. "He broke that out; that was not a [planned] play. He says he's done it before, and you give him credit. When you're not locked in at the plate, you want to do anything you can to get a run in."
Filling in behind the plate for Buster Posey, who missed his second straight game with a tight right hamstring, Sanchez went 2-for-4 with two doubles and two RBIs after being hitless in eight at-bats in the preceding three-game series against the Dodgers.
"He had a great game all around. He caught well; him and Z were in sync," Bochy said. "The bat came around tonight. We were giving him a hard time that his bat had a hole in it down in L.A., but he's a good hitter. He gets some at-bats here, and with Buster needing some rest it's been good for Hector."
"For me, every game is amazing," the rookie Sanchez said. "It's important for me, especially in my first year with the team. Today, I just tried to do my best at my job, especially with men in scoring position. That's all I'm trying to do."
Zito's outing followed a July 17 start in which he blanked the Braves in seven shutout innings, and his efforts Thursday sent the Giants to a season-best 15 games above .500.
"I don't know if it was Barry being that dominant or us not putting up a good approach against him," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "We've seen him enough to where we could make an adjustment. He's deceptive. He pitches high enough in the strike zone and frustrates you with the curveball and changeup."
Bochy said he checked with Zito before sending him back out for the ninth inning, and Zito said he just missed on his pitches, with fatigue not being a factor. He departed after having thrown 113 pitches, and after Affeldt allowed Freeman's two-run double and walked Dan Uggla, Javier Lopez and Sergio Romo teamed to get the final three outs of the game.
"It's awesome that [Bochy] let me go out there, and I wanted to go out there and finish it," Zito said. "I felt like I could. It was just frustrating that I didn't make my pitches like I had been all night and risked the team possibly giving up the lead, too."
Jay Lee is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.