What the Giants are asking of Ryan Vogelsong is almost unfair. They need him to be pitch perfect. They need him to provide a once-in-a-lifetime performance. They need him to remember where he's been and where he is now, and do so without succumbing to intimidating, potentially overwhelming circumstances.
Lose today, and the Cincinnati Reds sweep the best-of-five National League Division Series, ending a Giants season that has been stirring, compelling, quirky, perplexing, disappointing.
While 2010 was torture, 2012 has not exactly been pain-free. Closer Brian Wilson went down early with an injury. Melky Cabrera was suspended for 50 games for violating Major League Baseball's drug policy. Pablo Sandoval underwent hand surgery, yet somehow has no trouble manipulating a knife and fork. Right fielder Hunter Pence has been an inconsistent offensive contributor, and his defense is always an adventure.
Even catcher Buster Posey the N.L. batting champ and leading candidate for MVP had to hold his nose (and tongue) and tolerate more time at first base than he would have liked.
But with these Giants, it's all about the pitching, and as has become apparent throughout the season with one shaky outing and slump following another the pitching is significantly below 2010 standards. At times, the starters appear downright ordinary. Other times including last weekend, when Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner dropped the first two games against the Reds they are much less than ordinary.
When two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum implodes and is sent to the bullpen, forced aside by the oft-maligned but revived Barry Zito? The natural order of things at AT&T Park has been seriously disrupted.
"It's hard to beat (Cincinnati) if you don't get a quality start," manager Bruce Bochy acknowledged. "You're facing good pitching, and you hope to play close ballgames. It's tough when those guys (Cain and Bumgarner) aren't quite on the top of their game."
Here's how far the Giants' pitching axis has shifted: Vogelsong, 35, wasn't even on the roster in 2010. He was throwing for Triple-A clubs in Salt Lake City and Lehigh Valley, just two of many stops in a nomadic career that included experience with the Pittsburgh Pirates, winter ball in Venezuela and three seasons with the Hanshin Tigers in Japan.
Talent was never the issue. Strong and athletic at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Vogelsong supplements a lively fastball with cutters, changeups and curves, and he pounds the strike zone. Yet for all of his considerable ability, he didn't put it together until he was into his 30s - and still in the minor leagues.
"The biggest thing now is that my concentration level is different," he explained late Sunday night while seated at his locker. "I use that to get me through games. In the past, the game was too fast. I wasn't really thinking about every pitch the way I should have. The mental part of my game had to get better, and I did that."
Famously intense before and during his starts, Vogelsong is also thoughtful and engaging, and unfailingly polite. He says what he thinks; there are no corporate or company lines uttered at his corner of the clubhouse. He still acts like someone who has spent time in an unemployment line and is grateful to have a job.
And he wants the ball against the Reds. He wants his turn.
"I am really excited," said Vogelsong, who went 14-9 with a 3.37 ERA this year and emerged from a mini slump to allow one earned run in his final three starts. "This is something I've been waiting a long time for. I always hoped I would get my chance. Being down 0-2 is obviously different, but I want to make the most of it."
Asked about being a rookie at this postseason stuff, he smiled.
"It won't matter," he added, quietly. "I just have to make my pitches."