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Senior Baseball Columnist

Giants win another elimination game, this time journeyman Ryan Vogelsong plays hero


Ryan Vogelsong, hugged by Bruce Bochy after his Game 6 win, is the Giants' unlikely hero. (US Presswire)  
Ryan Vogelsong, hugged by Bruce Bochy after his Game 6 win, is the Giants' unlikely hero. (US Presswire)  

SAN FRANCISCO -- Your city's cemetery does not dig as many graves in a given month as these Giants have dug for themselves this October. By now, you'd think they'd be six-feet under, 2012 covered in dirt, its spirit in the sky.

So you bet it was totally appropriate that a pitcher whose career at one time was left for dead came up with the game of his life Sunday night.

Ryan Vogelsong, who flamed out in Pittsburgh, kept his career alive in Japan and was released by two organizations upon returning to the majors produced a 6-1 lifesaver over the Cardinals, and now, quick, somebody get this city some oxygen.

Giants and Cardinals, Game 7 in this NL Championship Series, Monday night.

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It will be the first Game 7 in the city of San Francisco since the 1962 World Series, when Willie McCovey's screaming liner landed in Bobby Richardson's glove and the Yankees broke this city's heart.

"I don't feel the emotions will change at all," said Tim Lincecum, who will be available in relief to back up Matt Cain on Monday. "Just like when we were down 3-1 in St. Louis, we felt like we had a chance. And we were down 2-0 and came out of it in Cincinnati.

"Been there, done that."

Five times now, these Giants have stepped into a playoff game in which a loss would end their season.

Five times now, they've laughed in the face of sudden death and lived another day.

Anybody for a sixth time Monday?

"We're winning," reliever Jeremy Affeldt said. "I don't know if it brings out the best in us, or if we just have no other option."

That's the thing about these Giants. Man, are they full of life.

Vogelsong, 35, was supposed to have been long gone by now. Giants' fifth-round draft pick in 1998. Traded to the Pirates in the Jason Schmidt deal. Tommy John ligament transfer surgery in 2003.

Then the fun really began. Trying to salvage his career, he pitched for two seasons in Japan. Winter ball in Venezuela. Made a total of 10 stops at various minor-league outposts. Was released by the Phillies and by the Angels. Returned to the Giants, started the 2011 season at Triple-A Fresno and was summoned to the bigs when Barry Zito hurt his foot.

Who can predict how this stuff happens? Three months later, he was an NL All-Star.

Now on his first-ever postseason roster, he's become an October star.

Vogelsong is 2-0 with a 1.42 ERA in three starts this month, and in those starts the Giants are 3-0. Two of them have been games with no margin for error. When Vogelsong started Game 3 in Cincinnati in the Division Series, a loss would have ended San Francisco's season. Same with Sunday night against the Cardinals.

"He's probably been as good as any starter we've had this year," manager Bruce Bochy said.

That includes Matt Cain and Lincecum, heroes of the Giants' 2010 World Series run. And talk about a savior. Given Lincecum's alarming regression this season, Vogelsong, at 14-9 with a 3.37 ERA, has been essential.

"The best fastball and stamina that he's ever had," Giants' general manager Brian Sabean, who was in charge way back when the club drafted Vogelsong, was saying before the game.

Vogelsong started the game by throwing 14 consecutive fastballs. Fourteen! Four-seamers. Two-seamers. In. Out. Down. Up. It was a Master's class in both spotting the fastball and setting up secondary pitches for later on.

Within those 14 fastballs to start, he whiffed Jon Jay and walked Matt Carpenter. Then he dug an 0 and 2 count for Carlos Beltran, which set up pitch No. 15.

Changeup, 84 mph.

An off-balance Beltran swung and missed.

Then Vogelson fanned this third hitter of the inning, Allen Craig.

By the end of his seven artful innings, Vogelsong had struck out a career-high nine batters and left with his team leading 5-1.

"His heater outside looks like it's away and it paints the black," said Cardinals third baseman David Freese, who fanned in two of three plate appearances against the Giants' right-hander. "And his heater inside looks like it's middle and he puts it on the black on the inside."

"Nothing against Lincecum, Cain or [Madison] Bumgarner," Cardinals infielder Skip Schumaker said. "But this guy is as tough as any pitcher we face."

Now here's the thing. Vogelsong came away convinced that his stuff during the Giants' 7-1 Game 2 win over the Cardinals was better than what he had Sunday. On that night, he also held the Cards to one run over seven innings, though he only struck out four.

"I threw the ball well tonight, but I felt like I had some good misses," Vogelsong said. "After Game 2, I don't feel like I had as many misses. ... Tonight I had good stuff, but I missed on some pitches they swung through."

Dance on the tightrope, as the Giants have all month, sometimes you need more than just being good. Sometimes you need a little luck.

Take Vogelsong at the plate in the second inning. Because he helped win this one with his bat, too.

After Cards manager Mike Matheny ordered Brandon Crawford intentionally walked to put runners on first and third with one out to bring Vogelsong to the plate, the pitcher flashed bunt ... then quickly pulled the bat back and swung away. The old Butcher Boy play. Perfect. He chopped a ground ball to shortstop that Pete Kozma should have handled ... but didn't. Brandon Belt raced home from third to make it 2-0.

The guy who practically had to travel around the world to get a foothold in the majors was doing it both with his arm and with his bat.

"Huge, huge, huge," closer Sergio Romo said. "You can't ask for any more than he gave us. The work he puts in ... I'm really proud of the guy.

"Wow, what a bulldog."

Ask the Giants about Vogelsong and, to a man, they will rave about his work ethic. Nobody works harder. Nobody prepares more. They're a little past the stage of gushing about how good they feel for him given the way he's bounced around. But they are not past the stage of speaking of the guy with near-reverence.

"I think we just appreciate him, generally," Affeldt said. "He's just a good husband, a good father, a good teammate and a good human being.

"His work ethic is as good as anybody's in here. That's how a starter has success in the big leagues, by working the way he works. Looking at scouting reports, video ... he pitches with conviction.

"His journey hasn't been normal. It hasn't been easy. But you know what? It was his journey. This is just another one for the books. It's a chapter in his life. He has an awesome son [Ryder, 3] and a beautiful wife [Nicole]. I'm very, very happy I even got to know him."

Plenty has motivated Vogelsong throughout his journey, but his drive on a Sunday night when the Giants again faced an early winter was pretty clear.

"I didn't want let these guys down," he said, and you could hear the appreciation in his voice. "I didn't want to let this city down."

So here they are, the baseball season that they just won't let end, the Giants and their city.

Sixth elimination game the Giants will attempt to survive this month. Five-for-five is a pretty good batting average so far.

"It's Game 7 in the playoffs, at home, with our fans," Romo said. "You can't really ask for more."

"It's pretty neat," catcher Buster Posey said.

Breathe deeply, San Francisco. These things only come around these parts, oh, every 50 years.


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