Ryan Vogelsong said he felt a lot more riding on his start Thursday afternoon than a chance at beating the Dodgers and helping the Giants notch a three-game sweep of their rivals.
The early line for Vogelsong this season did not look good. Pitching in an unfamiliar role out of the bullpen, the right-hander had allowed 12 earned runs in his first 10 1/3 innings with opponents hitting .400 against him. After Jake Peavy’s back strain opened up a need in the starting rotation Thursday, the Giants chose to give Vogelsong the assignment, but waited until the day before to make it official.
Vogelsong delivered an encouraging outing: Six innings, three hits allowed, although two of them cleared the wall as solo home runs by Alex Guerrero and Adrian Gonzalez. After Gonzalez’s third-inning shot, though, Vogelsong retired 10 of his final 11 hitters, keeping the Giants close in a game they rallied to win, 3-2, in 10 innings.
"There was a lot going through my mind today," Vogelsong said after the Giants finished their first homestand 4-6 by sweeping the Dodgers. "Just felt like I really needed to have a good outing to kind of get myself going. And two, if I don’t pitch well, who knows? I don’t get another chance to start, or even be here anymore. You don’t know.
"This game is not a ‘try’ game. It’s a results game. And if you’re not putting up results, you never know what’s going to happen. I had a lot of emotions going into the game, and I’m just glad I was able to put a good one up there."
Manager Bruce Bochy affirmed afterward that Vogelsong did enough Thursday to earn himself at least one more start in Peavy’s spot. His turn would come up next Tuesday at Dodger Stadium.
"I thought he threw the ball well," Bochy said. "Couple mistakes, but overall I thought it was a real nice effort. And he threw, what, 85 pitches or so. We’ve got him stretched out and he’ll be in there."
As bad as Vogelsong’s numbers were before Thursday he said, "I knew I was pretty close to throwing the ball the way I wanted to." He said the Giants gave him a strong indication earlier this week he would be starting the finale against the Dodgers, so while he stayed a backup option in the bullpen the past couple of nights, he prepared as he normally would for a start, studying the Dodgers’ hitters and game planning.
Vogelsong said the two homers, Guerrero in the second inning and Gonzalez in the third, were "a couple mistakes … more mental than physical. But that’s as good as I’ve thrown the ball in a while." Most importantly, he kept the Giants close, allowing them to tie the game in the ninth and record their second consecutive walk-off win on Justin Maxwell’s single in the 10th.
"That’s the one thing about this team, we’ve got some different guys in here this year, but one thing hasn’t changed, and that’s this team’s pretty resilient," Vogelsong said. "So as a starter you’re just trying to go out and keep us close, give them a chance to come back, because they’re really good at doing that."
Vogelsong threw 85 pitches in his six innings, 56 for strikes, allowing five runners while striking out five. He hit Justin Turner with his first pitch of the game, but struck out both Adrian Gonzalez and Howie Kendrick to end that inning. He walked Kendrick following Gonzalez’s homer in the third, but set down 10 in a row after that.
It’s questionable whether the Giants would have downgraded Vogelsong if he’d produced a bad start Thursday. Simply put, their pitching staff is thin right now with the injuries to Peavy and Matt Cain, and they don’t exactly have options knocking on the door in Triple-A, especially not with Vogelsong’s major-league experience.
Vogelsong pointed out something interesting Thursday: His two best seasons as a Giant, in 2011 and 2012, came when he was still trying to prove himself again in the big leagues after a career detour to Japan. His last two seasons haven’t been nearly as productive, and still the Giants brought him back this offseason on a one-year deal.
It was for just such an occasion as Thursday, with the Giants needing a starter in a game that carried plenty of significance for April 23. And despite the "emotions" he said were swirling inside him, Vogelsong gave the Giants what they needed.
"Honestly I feel like I kind of pitch better in these situations, when my back’s against the wall," Vogelsong said. "I kind of feel like I’m back in 2011, where every start I wasn’t quite sure if I was going to get another one after that and I needed to go out and throw the ball well.
"Maybe this is the pressure I need, I don’t know. I’m definitely used to this because it’s basically been like this my whole career until the last couple years. Maybe this is what I need to get my head out of my butt, so to speak."
* Quite a series for Justin Maxwell, the 31-year-old who grew up a Giants fan on the East Coast and played a big part in the three-game sweep. Maxwell’s the focus of tomorrow’s print story, with his walk-off single coming two innings after he was robbed of a potential game-winning hit on a sensational diving catch by second baseman Howie Kendrick.
Maxwell was playing in his first homestand as a Giant, and said he definitely felt what he had observed from the opposing dugout in prior seasons at AT&T Park: How the energy at AT&T Park seems to keep the Giants dangerous in games where they’re trailing late.
Maxwell recalled visiting AT&T in 2012 while playing for Houston. The Astros were not a good team then, and the temperature dropped for midsummer night games, but "the fans were always behind (the Giants)," he said. "I think having 40,000-some fans supporting you every play, every at-bat, has a lot to do with how these guys play and kind of feed off the energy of the fans."
* Maxwell was able to win it in the 10th thanks to contributions from other players in the lineup. Angel Pagan led off the inning with a single off Juan Nicasio, after falling behind in the count 0-2, and then stole second base with one out on a 2-2 pitch to Brandon Belt, one pitch after the Dodgers had pitched out hoping to catch him off the base.
"He’s a catalyst," Bochy said of Pagan, who scored the winning run. "He picked a good pitch to go on. At that point we’re trying to make something happen, and great job on his part. He looked determined to go home, didn’t he?"
Brandon Crawford’s first triple of the season tied the game in the ninth. Crawford jumped on the first pitch he saw from Pedro Baez and drove it to the right-center field gap. Baez throws hard, and Crawford said he wanted to make sure he got his front foot down early in case he got a fastball on the first pitch. He didn’t miss it.
Scoring the tying run was Matt Duffy, who pinch-ran for Casey McGehee. McGehee had a rough game - and homestand, really, entering his ninth-inning at-bat on a 1-for-17 skid. McGehee had already grounded into a double play and struck out twice Thursday and the grumblings in the stands following his at-bats were growing more noticeable.
McGehee didn’t admit to noticing them, but he did say it was "definitely a relief" when he lined an opposite-field single off Baez in the ninth to start the game-tying rally.
"It’s kind of the swing I’ve been trying to find, using the big part of the field, and I think the biggest thing I got out of it was … just get in there and compete instead of worrying about the outcome," McGehee said. "The feeling I had that at-bat, the swing, something I’m going to try to file away and try to build off of.
"It felt good to be able to contribute in a win."
* Given how this homestand started, the Giants were happy to get away with a 4-6 record while closing some ground on the first-place Dodgers. The Giants are still bringing up the rear in the very-early N.L. West standings, but the three games separating them and the Dodgers are not nearly as startling as the six-game deficit they carried into the series.
Standings right now, of course, won’t get much reaction. The Giants’ takeaway from this series was better all-around play: Better at-bats with runners in scoring position, outings from starters that kept them competitive, and some of the late resiliency that has marked their recent seasons.
"The overall game was a lot better these last three," Crawford said, "and hopefully we can carry it into the road trip."
The Giants go to Colorado, then to Los Angeles for three more against the Dodgers. The pitching probables for the Rockies series:
Friday: RHP Chris Heston (2-1, 0.87) vs. RHP Eddie Butler (1-1, 2.25)
Saturday: RHP Tim Hudson (0-2, 3.93) vs. LHP Jorge De La Rosa (0-1, 31.50)
Sunday: RHP Tim Lincecum (1-1, 2.00) vs. LHP Tyler Matzek (1-0, 2.40)