SAN FRANCISCO If the Giants prolong the postseason that could have died a couple of times now, defeating the St. Louis Cardinals tonight and earning a chance to throw one past the Detroit Tigers, the chatter about their starting pitching will be never-ending.
Whose is the most compelling story? The maligned Barry Zito, who pitched the game of his life Friday? The unheralded and emerging Ryan Vogelsong, who pitched the game of his life (or the second-best game of his life) two nights later? Or will it be Matt Cain, who experienced perfection one night not so very long ago, and who only needs to be nearly perfect in Game 7 tonight?
This isn't 2010, when Tim Lincecum was lights out, but there is something increasingly electric about 2012. First Zito, and now Vogelsong, and so much for Vogelsong being a rookie at this postseason stuff.
He is making it look easy. He is mixing fastballs and cutters, surprising with curveballs and changeups. He is pitching like an ace, not a 35-year-old journeyman who couldn't make the Giants' roster two years ago. He stalked off the mound Sunday after seven innings, acting as if he owned the place, as if he has been doing this for years.
"Nobody wants to be the guy that doesn't get it done," Vogelsong said afterward. "I didn't want to let these guys down. I didn't want to let the city down. To come through tonight and get us to tomorrow feels good."
Thirty-five years old. Saving the Giants from elimination this postseason not once but twice, and pitching terrific in all three starts. These are the type of freaky performances once expected from "The Freak," not a guy who spent much of his career in the minor leagues. If it seems almost too good to be true, well, it's taking Vogelsong a little while to adjust as well.
For almost 45 minutes late Sunday evening, after the Game 6 victory had been claimed and that seventh game secured, Vogelsong sat at his locker, sipping Gatorade, glancing at his cellphone and mostly staring into space. No one approached for a long time, not even his teammates and especially not his teammates, who have come to appreciate his intense personality and understand he needs room to breathe, undoubtedly after the most memorable performance of his career.
For seven innings and especially in that first inning, the rangy right-hander blew pitch after pitch past the Cardinals, establishing a pattern that persisted. His first 13 pitches were fastballs, including a 93-mph two-seamer that was so nasty, so beautifully placed on the lower inside portion of the plate, Vogelsong didn't even wait for umpire Jerry Layne to call a third strike. He began moving off the mound while Cardinals left fielder Allen Craig was still seemingly frozen at the plate, bat still on his shoulder.
"There was no plan going in," said Vogelsong, who didn't allow a hit until Daniel Descalso's broken-bat, two-out single in the fifth. "I just kind of saw the way our team reacted the other night when Barry came out and was throwing up zeroes saw how our team was feeding off that, and I knew that I had to go out there and keep them off the board early."
Except that it wasn't just the team; it was the entire building. And it wasn't just early; it was late, too. Vogelsong allowed four hits and one run, finally getting reached in the sixth when Carlos Beltran doubled and scored on Craig's single. He struck out a career-high nine, fanned five of the first six hitters and contributed to the Giants' early offensive flurry with a slow grounder that drove in the second run. He left to a standing ovation, serenaded with chants of "VO-gey, VO-gey, VO-gey."
He also left as only the second Giants pitcher in 100 years to allow one earned run or less in three straight postseason starts, joining Cain in 2010.
That was Cain, 2010. This is Vogelsong, 2012.
While the Giants were charging toward the 2010 postseason, Vogelsong was scratching out a living in the minor leagues, delighted just to have a job after a frenetic career path had included stops all over the globe, in Japan and Altoona and Indianapolis and Nashville and elsewhere. A 1998 draft choice of the Giants, he missed the 2002 season after Tommy John surgery and for years struggled with his concentration and his approach.
"He's learned how to fail, he's learned how to succeed," veteran reliever Jeremy Affeldt said, "and he's been preparing for this start for his entire life."