SAN FRANCISCO -- Ryan Vogelsong had hoped not to be pitching Tuesday night.
After the Giants took a 2-0 lead in the NLDS against the Nationals, they had a chance to sweep behind Madison Bumgarner in Game 3. Vogelsong was lined up for Game 4 just in case. If he did have to pitch, it would be with the Giants trying to avoid a return trip to Washington and a winner-take-all fifth game.
"I was hoping it wasn’t going to get to me," Vogelsong said Tuesday night. "But I had this crazy feeling it was going to come down to me in Game 4. And I just had to get the job done."
As Vogelsong spoke, it was in a raucous Giants clubhouse heady with the smell of beer and Champagne and cigar smoke, dressed in plastic tarp to catch the spray of yet another clinching celebration. The Giants beat the Nationals, 3-2, to capture the series and move on to the NLCS for the third time in five years, where they’ll face the St. Louis Cardinals.
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Vogelsong did not get the win -- Bryce Harper’s game-tying homer in the seventh made sure of that -- but he earned himself a place in baseball history with a performance that helped wipe away the remnants of a difficult September and a trying regular season.
For 5 2/3 innings, Vogelsong held the Nationals to one run on two hits. In doing so, he became the first starting pitcher in major-league history to allow one run or fewer in each of his first five career postseason starts. He has a 1.19 ERA in 30 1/3 playoff innings, and the Giants are 5-0 in those games.
Vogelsong hadn’t pitched since Sept. 26, but he came out in the first inning touching 94 mph on the radar gun. Catcher Buster Posey said he’d already seen in the bullpen that the fastball from Vogelsong "was coming in and had a lot of life."
"I wouldn’t have guessed 95," Posey said. "It’s funny what adrenaline will do for you."
Or to you. So often players talk about the challenge of harnessing adrenaline and trying to avoid the mental and physical errors it can cause. But as amped as Vogelsong appeared to be early, he stayed under control. He didn’t allow a hit for the first four innings, and, "For a guy that hadn’t pitched in whatever it was, 10, 12 days," Posey said, "he didn’t make many mistakes."
That wasn’t always the case in September, when Vogelsong went winless in five starts with a 5.53 ERA. It capped a season Vogelsong finished 8-13 with a 4.00 ERA, often times the victim of low run support, other times of his own miscues, seemingly chasing consistency through the entire six months.
"It was a pretty tough year on me mentally with throwing the ball pretty good at times and not getting the results I wanted, and throwing not so well at times and not getting the results I wanted," Vogelsong said. "So coming out here tonight and being able to throw the ball like that and give us a chance to win, get to the next round, it’s very gratifying."
Vogelsong had talked after his last regular-season start, when he allowed four runs in a loss to the Padres, about wishing he’d performed better in what might have been his last outing as a Giant at AT&T Park (he’ll be a free agent after the season).
He got another shot Tuesday, and this time as he left the mound, it was with a 2-1 lead in the sixth, and his walk to the dugout was scored by a standing ovation from the sold-out home crowd. Vogelsong rarely looks up when he’s leaving the mound after an inning. But this time, before reaching the dugout steps, he did glance up -- waved briefly, and nodded before disappearing from view.
"What a job he did," manager Bruce Bochy said. "It’s been an up and down year for him and I said, ‘There must be a reason why he’s on the mound tonight. He’s going to find a way to get it done for us.’ And he did."
* Giants starting pitchers in the four games combined to allow just four earned runs over 34 2/3 innings for an ERA of 1.04, striking out 31 and issuing seven walks.
"It’s about making pitches, but you’ve got to tip your hat to Buster," Vogelsong said. "He caught a great series and as a staff we just made pitches. We made big pitches when we had to, and you’ve got to tip your hat to him. He definitely led the way."
Posey returned the compliment to the staff.
"They had plans going into it, and from starters all the way to relievers they just really executed pitches," he said. "Didn’t make many mistakes. Thinking back to Huddy’s start (in Game 2), I feel like a few of the hits they got were pitches that came back over the middle. It’s a good offense over there. That just tells you how dialed in those guys were."
* Vogelsong’s last pitch resulted in the highlight play of the game -- Hunter Pence’s leaping, back-to-the-wall catch that robbed Jayson Werth of extra bases in the sixth.
"One of the best catches, with what was at stake," Bochy said. "I didn’t think he had a chance to get it. It looked like it was off the wall and he got that out. That lifted the club."
Pence said that off Werth’s bat, "I knew he hit it hard. I know that our park is big, so I was trying to run back as hard as I could. When I looked at it I was like, ‘I’m going to have to go as hard as I can, make a jump and a stab, and fortunately I was able to get it."
Going hard is Pence’s trademark. It’s why Michael Morse, watching from the dugout, said he wasn’t shocked to see Pence make the play.
"He would run through the wall to make that catch," Morse said.
"He plays a great right field," Posey said. "That catch -- if a defensive play can switch the momentum in your favor, that’s one that will do it."
It wasn’t the first time Pence had backed Vogelsong with a terrific catch in a big situation -- two years ago, with Vogelsong starting a must-win Game 3 in the NLDS in Cincinnati, Pence made a sliding grab in right field in the early innings. Asked what it is about Pence making those plays behind him, Vogelsong said: "He has to. He doesn’t have a choice."
While his teammates and manager raved about the play, Pence said when asked where the catch ranks among plays he has made in his career: "I don’t really rate catches."
"If I catch a ball and they’re out, I’m really happy about it," Pence said. "So I’m happy that he was out."
* Joe Panik hadn’t been in the bigs long when he fielded the last out of Tim Lincecum’s no-hitter against the Padres in July. Tuesday night, as Wilson Ramos’ grounder bounced toward him with two outs in the ninth, Panik said it was a different sensation.
"With Timmy’s no-hitter, everything was going fast," Panik said. "Once this ground ball was hit to me, everything seemed to slow down. Everything was going in slow motion.
"It was just like the ground balls I’ve been taking my entire life."
The rookie calmly fielded the ball and threw to Brandon Belt at first base to touch off the celebration in the middle of the infield. A key for the Giants since taking over the second base position, Panik again made his presence felt Tuesday night. He drove in the second run in the second inning on a groundout, fighting off a two-strike pitch, then scored the go-ahead run in the seventh on Aaron Barrett’s bases-loaded wild pitch.
"I felt like I got a really good read on it," said Panik, who scampered in from third base. "Once I saw the ball go in the dirt the initial reaction is to go. Once I saw it skip up and away from him, I just took off and knew right away."
Panik said he has never been to St. Louis. When the Giants played the Cardinals in the NLCS two years ago, Panik was in the Arizona Fall League.
"I was watching them," he said, "following them every step of the way."
This time, he’ll be right there in step.
* The game story gets into more particulars of the Giants’ seventh consecutive playoff series win. The notebook leads with Gregor Blanco. Bochy stuck with Blanco in the leadoff spot despite Blanco going 1-for-14 in the first three games, and Blanco delivered a key at-bat in the second inning, drawing a bases-loaded walk for the game’s first run.
Blanco had said before the game he felt he needed to be more patient, and exercised a better approach in that at-bat. He also singled in the fifth inning, and said he was glad to contribute after a rough first few games.
* On that note, how about the Giants’ offense Tuesday night? They scored their three runs on Blanco’s bases-loaded walk, Panik’s groundout and a bases-loaded wild pitch. They nearly had another when Barrett airmailed catcher Wilson Ramos on ball four of an intentional walk to Pablo Sandoval, but Ramos corralled the ball and threw to Barrett in time to cut down Posey at the plate.
"It was pretty bizarre," Pence said of that sequence. "It was one of those full-moon type deals."
The Giants’ pitching and defense helped mask their feeble offense in this series, as they won their three games scoring a total of eight runs in 36 innings (counting the 18-inning Game 2). Blanco was candid afterward about those numbers.
"In 2012 I think we had a better offensive side," he said. "But right now, we’re just grinding, man. We’ve gone through a lot of injuries, like Angel (Pagan) and Michael Morse. That’s big, that’s huge. But at the same time we’re doing our best to maintain our offense."
* The Nationals’ offense, meanwhile, mostly consisted of Bryce Harper and, to a lesser extent, Anthony Rendon. Harper hit three home runs in the series and drove in four of the Nationals’ nine runs. He now has four career postseason homers, tying Mickey Mantle, Miguel Cabrera and Andruw Jones for the most playoff home runs before age 22.
"I know that we’re proud of him, I know that much," said Nationals manager Matt Williams. "I know that he’s got great talent."
Harper’s solo homer in the seventh was a moon shot that landed in McCovey Cove on a 97 mph fastball from Hunter Strickland. Harper had taken Strickland to the upper deck at Nationals Park in Game 1. Afterward, Strickland said he was looking forward to facing Harper again. As of now, Harper owns that matchup, 2-0.
* Williams elected not to use Stephen Strasburg, and used Matt Thornton and Barrett in the seventh inning of a tied game, in a must-win situation, rather than going straight to his later-inning lock-down relievers like Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen. His explanation:
"Those are our seventh inning guys," Williams said. "That’s how we set this up. We had two lefties at the top of the inning, and if we got to the righties we were going to go with Barrett. That’s what he’s done for us all year long."
Before the game, Williams had said all hands were on deck for Washington. Their season ended with those of Clippard, Storen, Strasburg and Craig Stammen idle.
* Posey, in the beer-soaked clubhouse, took a moment to reflect on the season up to this point. "It’s a fun group," he said. "We started off really hot this year, then kind of hit a bump. We felt like we were a team that gets in the playoffs, can do some good things."
Some might say the Giants backed into the postseason with the wild card. They were not favored by many to beat the 96-win Nationals. "We’ll probably be the underdog in the Cardinals series, too," Posey said.
And how much has that mattered to this team over the past five years? Before this NLDS even began, Tim Hudson generated some headlines with his "between your legs" quote, touting the fortitude of a Giants team that, on paper, does not look like a juggernaut. As they celebrated their latest playoff conquest Tuesday night, gathering around Pence and Vogelsong in the middle of the clubhouse, Vogelsong channeled that theme again.
"Huddy said it best," Vogelsong yelled to his surrounding teammates. "Are we a team with some big (cojones?)"
To which they replied: "Yes! Yes! Yes!"