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Giants put their faith in Ryan Vogelsong

With an NLCS must-win Game 6 at hand Sunday, San Francisco is counting on the late-blooming right-hander who finally has found success with the club.

October 21, 2012|By Bill Shaikin, Los Angeles Times
  • Ryan Vogelsong will pitch a must-win Game 6 for the San Francisco Giants Sunday.
Ryan Vogelsong will pitch a must-win Game 6 for the San Francisco Giants… (Paul Kitagaki Jr. / MCT )

SAN FRANCISCO — It happens every summer.

The minor league director comes to town to evaluate the triple-A team. For players beyond the prospect stage, these could be your do-or-die days. For pitchers, you might get one day.

And, on a September evening two years ago, the Angels' triple-A team sent a 33-year-old journeyman to the mound, a pitcher on his 10th minor league stop.

The guy threw 113 pitches and failed to get out of the fifth inning. His statistics did not indicate that outing was an aberration.

Could the Angels count on the guy as an injury replacement in the major leagues the next season, either as a spot starter or long reliever? The farm director decided they could not, and so the Angels did not offer Ryan Vogelsong a contract for the 2011 season.

"Oops," said Abe Flores, then the Angels' minor league director and now a scout for the New York Yankees.

"I didn't feel like he was going to be depth at the major league level. If we could look into a crystal ball and see he was going to be a Cy Young candidate the next season, of course we would have kept him."

Vogelsong made the National League All-Star team the next season, finishing 11th in Cy Young Award voting. The San Francisco Giants are asking him to keep their season alive Sunday, in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series.

The St. Louis Cardinals lead the series, three games to two. If the Cardinals win Sunday, they advance to the World Series against the Detroit Tigers. If not, the Cardinals and Giants play Game 7 here Monday.

No sense in Flores or the Angels beating themselves up over Vogelsong. The minor leagues are filled with players sure they can make an impact if they can just get a second chance, another chance, a last chance.

The Giants drafted Vogelsong in 1998, then traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Jason Schmidt in 2001. The Giants needed a top starter, but they did not surrender Vogelsong without regret.

"At the time, he had a really big arm and a good future," Giants General Manager Brian Sabean said.

In his second start with the Pirates, his elbow gave out, and gave way to Tommy John surgery. The Pirates nursed him through five more years, without much success. After three years in Japan, Vogelsong longed for a last shot at the majors.

In 2010, the Philadelphia Phillies signed him to a minor league contract. They cut him in July, but the Angels needed an extra arm at triple A and signed him.

Angels catcher Hank Conger remembers Vogelsong as a "real humble guy" with a wrinkle. Most starting pitchers warmed up with 25 or 30 pitches. Vogelsong wanted twice as many.

"He'd always say, 'I learned this when I was playing overseas,' " Conger said. "And every single pitch he threw had a purpose behind it."

Conger said he believed Vogelsong had the raw stuff to succeed if he could get his pitch counts under control.

"It's exciting to see him go from that to, all of a sudden, becoming an All-Star," Conger said. "It was a surprise, but you could see that, if he got an opportunity to play, he could be a pretty good pitcher."

At the time, the Angels had done fairly well finding minor league veterans to plug major league holes. Matt Palmer was 11-2 for them in 2009, and Shane Loux tossed a few decent innings.

Nothing, of course, like what Vogelsong has done in San Francisco.

"He outshined all of them," Flores said. "Good for him. I'm happy for him."

After the Angels released him, Vogelsong pitched winter ball in Venezuela. The Dodgers and Giants expressed interest, and Vogelsong opted for his original team, and for his first major league pitching coach, Dave Righetti.

The Giants sent him to the minor leagues too. But, when they needed an injury replacement in April 2011, they called him up.

He is still with the Giants.

In October 2010, when Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner pitched the Giants to the World Series championship, Vogelsong was unemployed.

This October, it is Vogelsong upon whom the Giants depend to keep hope alive for another World Series title.

"Experience helps," Vogelsong said, entirely earnestly. "I've obviously been through a lot."

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

twitter.com/BillShaikin

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