PHOENIX – Technically speaking, this start didn't come with quite the amount of consequence that Ryan Vogelsong got to know so well last October.
World Baseball Classic rules said Team USA could have lost Saturday and still advanced to the second round. A pitch limit all but ensured Vogelsong, the Giants' right-hander, would be out of the game with plenty of time left for the outcome to change.
But those became moot points Saturday night as Team USA beat Italy 6-2, with Vogelsong the winning pitcher. Wearing his country's blue-and-red jersey, something he called "a dream come true," Vogelsong steadied himself after a rocky first two innings to hold Italy down until the U.S. lineup finally awoke from an extended slumber.
Vogelsong pitched into the fifth inning, striking out four of the final five batters he faced, and third baseman David Wright broke open a 2-2 tie with a grand slam in the fourth. It sets up a win-or-go-home game today between the United States and Canada to advance to WBC second-round play later this week in Miami. Italy has already advanced.
Aside from three Cactus League outings this spring, two of Vogelsong's previous four starts before Saturday came in Game 3 of last year's NLDS and Game 6 of the NLCS, with the Giants facing elimination both times.
Vogelsong said Saturday night, with its "playoff atmosphere," felt almost like picking up where he left off.
"Yeah, it did," he said. "It was very similar. Same kind of emotions as the postseason last year. Not exactly how I had it planned out in my mind, but it was fun. It was everything that I thought it was going to be."
As Vogelsong stalked to the mound, it appeared his trademark scowl was already in midseason form. Some of his pitches, at least early on, were not quite as crisp.
Vogelsong was at 90-91 mph with his fastball but left a couple up in the zone. Italy's leadoff man, Nick Punto, hit his first offering for a single to left field and later scored from third when Vogelsong bounced a wild pitch past catcher Jonathan Lucroy.
Italy scored again the next inning with Giants minor-league catcher Tyler LaTorre the spark. LaTorre, who played for UC Davis, singled off Vogelsong with two outs and scored on Anthony Granato's double.
Punto followed Granato's hit with a single, prompting a mound visit from U.S. pitching coach Greg Maddux. After Maddux departed, Vogelsong threw one pitch to get out of the inning and didn't allow another baserunner. He struck out four hitters in a row at one point, including the side in the fourth.
"He just came out and reconfirmed what I knew, that I was throwing some good pitches and giving up some hits," Vogelsong said. "I just got a little angry and just tried to turn it up a little bit more."
Luca Panerati, an Italian native who has never pitched above A-ball in the United States, shut out the U.S. for three innings. However, reliever Marco Grifantini allowed an RBI double to Joe Mauer in the fourth, then put the first two U.S. batters on in the fifth. Both scored in a five-run inning highlighted by Wright crushing a 1-2 breaking ball from Matt Torra into the seats in left-center.
"Vogey settling down I think gave the offense the momentum," Wright said.
Nearing his limit of 65 pitches, Vogelsong came out for the fifth and allowed a leadoff single to his last hitter. Had he looked up as he walked to the dugout, he would have seen a familiar sight in Giants lefty Jeremy Affeldt jogging in to relieve him. Affeldt retired three in a row on 15 pitches, making him eligible to pitch today against Canada if needed.
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