SAN FRANCISCO On June 25, 2005, right-hander Chris Carpenter, who will start Game 6 of the National League Championship Series against the Giants today for the Cardinals, was spinning a gem in St. Louis.
Carpenter struck out 11 Pittsburgh Pirates in a shutout, one of his 21 wins in a Cy Young Award-winning season. So he was hitting for himself in the seventh inning against the Pirates' 27-year-old relief pitcher.
Leading off, Carpenter reached on an error. Three batters later, he was standing on base as Albert Pujols launched a three-run homer off the right-handed reliever, who in two years would be out of the majors and pitching in Japan.
The reliever, Ryan Vogelsong, will start today for the Giants as they try to force the NLCS to a decisive seventh game against Carpenter, who attempts to lift the Cardinals into their second consecutive World Series.
"You always saw in Pittsburgh he had a great arm with good stuff but couldn't put it all together over there, and it's been good to see him come back and do what he's doing," said Carpenter, who has navigated multiple injury-related comebacks, including one this season from surgery to fix a nerve issue in his throwing shoulder.
"It's always tough, but some guys learn a little later than others, and he's definitely put it together and doing a great job now."
Vogelsong, whose return to the Giants team that drafted him has been well documented, will be making his third start this postseason and second in an elimination game. He gritted through five innings in Game 3 of the division series, a 10-inning, 2-1 Giants win that began their road sweep against Cincinnati.
In Game 2 of this series, one the Giants wanted badly to avoid losing both their guaranteed home games, Vogelsong allowed four hits and a run over seven innings after feeling something with his mechanics fall into place in the third inning. He beat Carpenter, who made a costly throwing error in the Giants' four-run fourth inning.
"Our guys are going to have to be more disciplined in their zone and not miss the mistakes," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. "But he didn't make a whole lot last time."
Vogelsong, who went 14-9 this year, shrugged off the idea that he's a big-game pitcher.
"I don't think two games make you that," he said.
Still, the message among the Giants before their 5-0 win Friday in St. Louis was to get the series back to San Francisco, where Vogelsong waited in Game 6 with the chance to get the ball to Matt Cain in a potential Game 7.
"It's hard to find people that don't like this (do-or-die) situation," first baseman Brandon Belt said. "Sometimes it is hard to find people who perform well in these situations. And he's one of them that does."
Barry Zito certainly did in Game 5 with 7 2/3 scoreless innings, a big moment in the left-hander's tumultuous Giants tenure and a performance that Vogelsong, in the wake of the win, said he felt could carry over to his own start.
"Hopefully I can go out and throw up a good one on Sunday and hand the ball over to Matt on Monday, and he can throw a good one up and make this thing real interesting," Vogelsong said.
Four of the Giants' five wins this postseason have come when facing elimination, a fact that prompted general manager Brian Sabean to muse at the team's optional workout Saturday: "I don't know if they love to win as much as they hate to lose."
Under Sabean, the Giants drafted Vogelsong in 1998 and traded him to the Pirates three years later. Sabean said the difference between that pitcher and the one who returned to them in 2011 lay in harnessing the stuff Carpenter recognized years ago.
"Well, he's learned how to pitch," Sabean said. "If you look back when we traded him he had a great arm, and then hurt his arm. So his journey's been more about how to pitch with less equipment."
Sabean likened it to the route of outfielder Gregor Blanco who signed in 2001 with Atlanta and did not debut until 2008 in terms of time spent in the minors, winter ball and, particularly in Vogelsong's case, overseas.
"Sometimes that experience alone does help on this level," Sabean said. "But both stories, especially Vogey's story, is interesting to see him come this far, and then have the responsibility of starting Game 6."