The San Francisco Giants' prayers were answered on Monday night at AT&T Park. At long last, the baseball gods saw fit to bequeath unto them a game in which their starting pitcher gave them at least six innings.
And it was glorious.
Ryan Vogelsong did the honors, going seven innings and allowing only one earned run on four hits and a pair of walks in the Giants' 7-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series.
It was the first time Vogelsong had gone seven innings in a start since August 8, when he pitched seven scoreless innings against—you guessed it—the Cardinals. For that matter, Vogelsong is the first Giants pitcher to go seven innings since Matt Cain on September 26 against the Arizona Diamondbacks. It had been a while.
A long enough while, of course, for people to start getting worried. Up until Vogelsong shut down the Cardinals on Monday night, there were a lot of people out there who were wondering wherefore the Giants' excellent starting pitching had gone and when it would return.
Well, we have our answer.
...For one night, at least.
To be absolutely safe from here on out in their matchup against the Cardinals, the Giants are going to need at least three more performances like the one they got from Vogelsong on Monday night. Vogelsong himself could deliver another if he starts again in this series, but beyond him the pressure to perform rests entirely on Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and (most likely) Tim Lincecum.
So, gentlemen, have at it. Go forth and pitch like Vogelsong.
No, seriously. Pitch exactly like him. You'll be happy you did.
Good Ryan Vogelsong starts have a tendency to be pitching clinics, as he's become very good at controlling both sides of the plate, changing speeds, changing eyelines, hitting his spots and all that other jazz that separates pitching from mere "throwing." Vogelsong has a ways to go before he's Greg Maddux, but the principles are the same.
Vogelsong's performance in Game 2 was a vintage Vogelsong performance if there ever was one. He was able to hold a very high-powered Cardinals offense to just four hits, and the only one that really hurt was Chris Carpenter's RBI double in the second inning that followed a walk to Pete Kozma. Aside from that, Vogelsong was able to work his way out of trouble the few times he actually found himself in trouble.
Take the third inning for example, which started with a double off the bat of Carlos Beltran. As the PitchFX charts over at BrooksBaseball.net will show, Vogelsong through a few too many pitches in the same location, and when you do that a guy like Beltran is going to hurt you. Especially if it's October and he's in Beast Mode.
With Matt Holliday, Allen Craig and Yadier Molina due up after Beltran's leadoff double, the Cardinals were in great position to do some damage. They didn't do any damage because Vogelsong never gave them anything to do damage with.
Vogelsong got Holliday to pop out harmlessly to first base by enticing him with three straight fastballs off the outside corner before giving him an offspeed pitching in pretty much the same spot. Holliday jumped at it, but he was caught off-balance. Score one for Vogelsong.
The sequence he used to get Craig out was even more impressive, as Vogelsong got called strikes on fastballs located on both the inner and outer half off the plate before getting Craig swinging on a two-seamer inside under his hands.
The strike-three pitch was seemingly a result of Vogelsong reacting to Craig's body language. He had flinched at the strike-two pitch that nipped the outside corner, and then appeared to be frustrated by the call. Vogelsong took advantage of that by throwing Craig a pitch that teased like it was going to go right in his happy zone (see FoxSports.com) before tailing out of the strike zone. Craig gave it a rip, but it was an unhittable pitch.
After punching out Craig, Vogelsong came in with a fastball on the inside part of the plate to Molina to get him to pop out. The pitch that got Molina was right in his wheelhouse, but he could do nothing with it because Vogelsong had just thrown off his timing and his eyeline with two straight offspeed pitches on the outer half of the plate. In addition, Molina couldn't do anything with it because he couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat at this juncture.
Once Molina's pop fly nestled in Brandon Belt's glove, Vogelsong was out of the jam and he was out of trouble for pretty much the rest of his evening. Only one Cardinals hitter reached second base after the third inning, and that was when Beltran doubled with two outs in the fifth inning. Vogelsong stranded him by getting Holliday to pop out to first yet again.
In case you're wondering, there is no real blueprint for getting Beltran out in the postseason. The very word "Beltran" is Spanish for "postseason extra-base hit."
The rest of the Cardinals' lineup, however, definitely felt Vogelsong's fury on Monday night. Most importantly, the combination of Holliday, Craig, Molina, David Freese, Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma was only able to manage one hit against Vogelsong.
Vogelsong wasn't able to dominate the Cardinals because he was blowing hitters away and getting tons of swings and misses outside of the strike zone. On the contrary, he got only five swings and misses out of the 106 pitches that he threw, and this doesn't come as a surprise in the slightest given St. Louis' offensive M.O.
The Cardinals are a patient team, and their lineup is chock-full of smart hitters. It's not an accident that they posted the highest OBP of any team in baseball this year. That can be tied to the fact that they had one of the league's lower strikeout rates, which, in turn can be tied to their collective plate discipline. Per FanGraphs, the Cardinals ranked in the bottom half of the league in both swinging-strike percentage and the number of pitches they swung at outside the strike zone.
There's a lot of jargon going on here, but the point is simple: If you're going to beat the Cardinals, you're going to have to beat them in the strike zone. And the only way you're going to do that, of course, is by making them go after your pitches.
This is precisely what Vogelsong did in Game 2. He had the Cardinals marching to his beat from the moment he threw his first pitch.
A performance such as the one we saw from Vogelsong on Monday night is one that we know Cain can replicate in Game 3 if he has his best stuff. He's one of the best in the business at the art of pitching, succeeding with command and trickery rather than overpowering stuff.
There's a bit of concern regarding Cain because of how he got knocked around by the Cincinnati Reds in the two starts he made in the NLDS, but only to a degree. He was cruising right along in his Game 5 start before he was gifted with a six-run lead in the fifth inning. Once he had that, he threw a few too many strikes up in the zone to lineup full of angry Reds hitters and paid dearly for it.
There's considerably more concern regarding Lincecum, as it's been over two weeks since he last started a game and he's spent the postseason adjusting to a different role that requires a different style of pitching.
He hasn't come out of the Giants pen trying to blow hitters away with fastballs, but he has been pitching exclusively from the stretch while trying to use his changeup more often. It remains to be seen how he will adjust to starting again if Bruce Bochy tabs him to start Game 4.
The whole "effectively wild" act that Lincecum used when he was successful during the regular season isn't going to fly so well against the Cardinals if he is tabbed to start. He won't be able to get away with too many walks, which is an iffy proposal seeing as how Lincecum set a new career high with 90 walks during the regular season.
No, Lincecum will have to take after Vogelsong if and when he starts by beating the Cardinals with finesse and smoke-and-mirrors. The same will be true of Bumgarner if Bochy can summon up the courage to start him again in this series after what he's pulled his last two times out to the mound.
So yeah, there are still some question marks regarding San Francisco's starting rotation. The Giants know that Vogelsong has things pretty well figured out in the postseason, but they don't know yet if any of his comrades are going to follow suit.
However, they have reason to hope. Cain and the rest of Bochy's starters will now be trying to one-up Vogelsong's Game 2 start rather than trying to put an end to the rotation's collective skid. Vogelsong's gem could kick-start a friendly competition that has the potential to produce agreeable results.
And the results will certainly be agreeable if the rest of the Giants' starters make like Vogelsong against the Cardinals. To paraphrase one of the best lines from the sci-fi classic Independence Day, he's shown his mates how to take the buggers down.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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