SAN FRANCISCO -- The bullpen dirt had barely had time to cling to Ryan Vogelsong’s cleats Thursday night when Nationals third baseman Yunel Escobar hit his first pitch just over the left-field wall for a leadoff home run.
"I had the outside feeling he was swinging and I just didn’t throw it where I wanted to," Vogelsong said later. "But you just kind of go into the mindset that that’s the last one they’re going to get."
That first inning turned into a 29-pitch slog for Vogelsong, who walked three batters and dodged further damage by getting Wilson Ramos on a bases-loaded groundout to end the inning. It taxed Vogelsong early, and contributed to his leaving after five innings and 94 pitches. But between Vogelsong and three relievers from a well-rested bullpen, that first-pitch homer by Escobar was the last run the Nationals got in a 3-1 Giants win.
"He stayed away from the big inning," Bochy said of Vogelsong. "Logged some pitches, that’s why he went five there. But he had good stuff tonight. First inning probably took a toll on him, but he did a great job finding a way to get through it."
Vogelsong agreed that stuff wasn’t his problem Thursday -- he struck out a season-high eight batters, one shy of his career high, and allowed two singles after Escobar’s homer. The right-hander said he had "some deception on my fastball and maybe a little extra zip," which led to the strikeouts.
He was less thrilled with how he recorded that line. Vogelsong walked four, fell behind often in counts and said the pitches he threw in the first inning caught up with him later. After the fifth inning, Vogelsong said, "(Bochy) asked me how I was doing. And I was pretty gassed." With a fresh bullpen given Monday’s off-day and Madison Bumgarner’s complete game Tuesday, Bochy was able to relieve Vogelsong at that point.
Still, Vogelsong said after the game that he feels "as good as I have at this point in the season." Because he has spent part of the season in the bullpen, Vogelsong has thrown 110 2/3 innings, a very manageable number for mid-August. He said that could partly explain how he feels, but he also credited Giants trainers with helping him design a new routine for strengthening his shoulder.
"I think that’s given me a little bit more zip on my fastball this time of year," he said.
Thursday’s was just Vogelsong’s second start following an extended stay in the bullpen. And he’s likely headed right back to a relief role with Mike Leake expected to come back from the disabled list next Tuesday.
It’s a shift Vogelsong has made a couple of times this season, and he said Thursday night that it’s "definitely easier for me to go back into the rotation than back to the bullpen. But you play with the cards you’re dealt and do the best you can."
* After Escobar hit Vogelsong’s first pitch for a home run, Giants pitchers threw 136 more without allowing another run. The final 43 came from Hunter Strickland, Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla to secure the Giants’ 61st win.
Strickland relieved Vogelsong and pitched two perfect innings with three strikeouts. He threw 16 of his 18 pitches for strikes, and his season strikeout-to-walk total is now 40 to 7.
"Man, he was pretty awesome tonight," Vogelsong said. "He’s been great. To throw that hard and have the command he does -- and how he’s commanding his off-speed stuff too -- it’s fun to watch."
Bochy was asked about how the Giants during spring training sent Strickland to Triple-A Sacramento to get stretched out for potential multiple-innings appearances, and said that Thursday’s game was the scenario they had in mind.
"We wanted to have some options with him and just make him available for a couple of innings," Bochy said. "And it was critical tonight. He pitched very effectively, pounded the strike zone, great stuff, good breaking ball to go with the fastball, had good location. Gave us what we needed there to get us to the set-up guy and closer."
Strickland had his typical life on the fastball, but also mixed in a breaking ball that he said he’s working on and falls somewhere between a slider and a curve. Strickland said he’s ready for more multi-innings appearances if needed, and that he feels confident mixing in the off-speed pitches right now, trusting what catcher Buster Posey calls for and where he sets up.
"Obviously last year I was more of a power pitcher, and I guess I still am," Strickland said. "But you definitely have to mix it up, hit your locations a little better, and just try to keep them off balance."
After Strickland departed, Romo came in for the eighth to face the heart of the Nationals lineup. He allowed a one-out single to Bryce Harper, but struck out Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth on sweeping sliders to end the inning.
"He really had good command of his slider tonight," Bochy said. "That’s a tough part of the order to go through, and he did a nice job."
After reportedly expressing some concern over the workload handled by his bullpen on the last road trip -- particularly during the last series in Chicago -- Bochy said he felt it was important Thursday night to have a rested bullpen, with George Kontos the only reliever he really wanted to stay away from.
"(When) those guys get tired, it affects their stuff, but probably more importantly their command," Bochy said. "Even though Vogey went five, the pen was fresh, and we could use guys how we wanted … You see a difference when the guys are fresh down there, and they’re not used as much."
* Offensively, the Giants responded to Escobar’s homer by taking the lead right back in the first inning. Gregor Blanco started it with a leadoff triple off of Stephen Strasburg and scored on a single by Matt Duffy, who eventually scored on a single by Posey. Blanco also created a run in the seventh when he walked, stole second and scored on a bloop hit to left by Brandon Belt.
"I think that leadoff hitter can set the tone -- you talk about the pitcher, but the top of the order, table-setters -- and of course he jump-started us that first inning," Bochy said. "It’s always good to have a leadoff hitter or number two hitter find a way to get on base and set it up. Gregor’s done a good job for us."
With Angel Pagan and Nori Aoki both on the DL right now, the leadoff spot belongs to Blanco. In 15 games leading off this season, Blanco has a .362 average and an on-base percentage over .450. The Giants feel comfortable with him there.
* The Giants did have a potential run cut down at home plate in the third inning, when third-base coach Roberto Kelly chose to send Posey on a sharply hit Hunter Pence single to right field. Bryce Harper made a strong, accurate one-hop throw, and Posey was out by several feet.
Posey froze momentarily to make sure Pence’s line drive got through the infield, and so didn’t have a great jump rounding third. Bochy said afterward he wasn’t worried about Posey’s legs getting tired from a lot of catching duty lately.
"I think he looks fresh, to be honest," Bochy said. "I’m not looking for speed from him."
* One thing not related to the game: Giants general manager Bobby Evans on Thursday confirmed a report that the team has made an offer to the Philadelphia Phillies for second baseman Chase Utley. But Evans added in a text message that the Giants are "not sure how it will unfold. Lots of interest by other teams as well."
Utley figured to generate plenty of interest after reportedly clearing waivers last week. He can still reject any trade because of his service time, and reportedly wants to be on a team for which he can play every day, which would be an issue in San Francisco when Joe Panik returns from back inflammation. The Giants, like everyone else, are waiting on the decision by the Phillies -- and Utley.
* Game two of this series has Matt Cain (2-3, 5.59) opposing Nationals right-hander Max Scherzer (11-8, 2.44). First pitch at 7:15 p.m.