ST. LOUIS -- Barry Zito swore he was in the moment professionally the entire time Friday night. Through every inning he pitched. Through all the Cardinal batters he struck out with his mystically slow 84 mph fastball. Through the entire Giants' victory that was so desperately needed.

Never once, Zito said, did he ponder how far he had come over the past few years.

Didn't have to, really. Because everyone else was.

"You know, it's hard to kind of think about all those things," Zito said at evening's end. "We're still fighting to win a game and stuff. I think the time to reflect on it might happen after everything is said and done and I'm back home in the offseason."

Which, thanks to him, has been postponed a little while longer.

You could just feel the communal brain waves as the Giants saved their playoff hopes with a 5-0 decision that sent the National League Championship Series back to San Francisco for Game 6 on Sunday. Everybody who was watching Zito throw nearly eight shutout innings was thinking simultaneously about the exact same stuff.

They were thinking about 2010, when Zito had not even been good enough to make the Giants' postseason roster for the team's World Series run.

Or they were thinking about the 2007 season, after Zito had signed a seven-year contract for $126 million and then laid an egg larger than the Coca-Cola bottle above left field at AT&T Park. Then he continued to lay further eggs, drawing further scorn through five losing seasons.

During those years, it even reached the point where Zito felt compelled to abandon social media. In Northern California, that's sort of like cutting out your own tongue.

"I tried Twitter and it was a pretty devastating experience for me," Zito said of those days. "I learned to not check the in-box. So I got off Twitter."

He should consider rejoining. This week, someone created a #RallyZito hashtag that spread quickly and trended like mad through Friday's game -- hitting a peak, no doubt, when Zito laid down a bunt for a base hit and drove in a run. (He joked that he used his "Arabian horse gallop" to beat the throw.)

How complete is the Zito revival? Former Giants principal owner Peter Magowan suddenly materialized in the locker room, eager to talk about how the Zito signing back in December of 2006 had finally paid off.

"This is sort of what we were hoping we would get and that he'd be the leader of a young pitching staff," Magowan said. "It didn't work out as anybody had hoped -- or I'm sure as he had hoped, we had hoped. But here we are, what is it, the sixth year? So it's been a while. He's had a great year and to see him rise to the occasion tonight against a team that's supposed to kill left-handed pitching ... it's just tremendous."

Still, it was just one game. The Giants must still win twice more to overcome the Cardinals. But it is difficult to overrate the pitching performance Zito gave his team Friday as it faced elimination. He admitted later that the victory was his best postseason moment ever, including a memorable 2006 victory when he was still with the Oakland A's and won a playoff game at the Metrodome over Minnesota by outdueling the Twins' ace, Johan Santana.

Friday was just as electric as that game. Zito said that in his previous start this postseason, a week ago against Cincinnati -- when he allowed eight baserunners in less than three innings -- that he was "nitpicking the corners, trying to be too fine." So against the Cardinals, he decided to be stronger in the strike zone with all his pitches.

You could also say that Zito received great help from his fielders Friday. And you would be correct. Hunter Pence, Pablo Sandoval, Marco Scutaro and Angel Pagan all made oh-wow defensive plays. But that was also part of the plan. When a control and speed-varied pitcher such as Zito is in command, he throws certain pitches to certain batters that have better odds of being hit to certain fielders.

And that is what occurred Friday, as Zito mixed his 69 mph curveball and 72 mph breaking pitches with his fastball. His opponent on the Cardinals' mound was Lance Lynn, a big and furry 25-year-old strong arm who throws 95 miles per hour. He and Zito could not have presented more contrasting styles. It was like watching Lady Gaga and Barbra Streisand performing on the same stage on the same night. Bombast versus style.

On this occasion, style won. Lynn was out of the game in the fourth inning after he gave up four runs. Zito kept going. And going. For 115 pitches -- the most he has thrown in a game since 2010, a span of 80 starts.

"You don't have to have 99 mph on your fastball if you can locate and keep hitters off balance," said Cardinals' manager Mike Matheny of Zito. "He was in the top of the zone, just above, on the edges, moving in and out. He was taking speeds off his breaking ball and change-up. That's what pitching is."

Of course it is. But upon request, Giants' manager Bruce Bochy did try to bring some perspective about Zito's journey over the last few seasons.

"He was so stand-up about his tough outings or whatever happened to him and very professional how he handled things," Bochy said. "I can remember when I had to tell him that he was not on the postseason roster in 2010. I think he went out and threw a bullpen right away, kept himself ready in case something happened."

Something did happen. It just took a couple of years. Zito is not spending the playoffs in the bullpen this time around. The Giants have won the last 13 times Zito has started a game. His next start this month, if there is one, might well be in the first game of the World Series.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/mercpurdy.