SAN FRANCISCO – Ryan Vogelsong took the empty seat in the Giants' hierarchy Monday night. The label on the back says "staff ace,'' and its vacancy in the playoffs has been fairly startling. This spot had been prime baseball real estate for five seasons but suddenly became an abandoned fixer-upper.
Vogelsong renovated it with a 7-1 win over the Cardinals, and he's eager to sell time-shares.
"Things like this can jump-start a rotation,'' he said after the Giants tied up the NLCS at a game per side.
"And hopefully, my performance tonight gets us going a little bit.''
The momentum theory of baseball is pseudo-science at best, but there is also no rational explanation for a string of weak outings by the Giants' starters. These guys had already been on a roll; it was just the wrong kind. They went six straight games without recording a quality start. No one made it through six innings.
Even during that streak, Vogelsong had a strong outing against the Reds in Game 3 of the Division Series. He left after five innings only because the offense needed the defibrillation of a pinch-hitter. Then he broke the barrier, going seven innings against the Cardinals on Monday.
His next job is to take Matt Cain out for chicken enchiladas Tuesday night in St. Louis. Vogelsong eats them regularly the night before every start, and right now, his lead must be followed. In between bites, he might want to refuel the wicked movement on Cain's fastball. It went all warm and fuzzy against Cincinnati. Vogelsong's did circus tricks, messing with the Cardinals' typically clear minds from the third inning on.
The right-hander has a powerful influence over his teammates. It doesn't matter that he is the only one of the five starters without a World Series ring. Or that, at 35, he has started fewer major-league games than anyone else on the staff but 23-year-old Madison Bumgarner, who trails him by only eight starts.
When Tim Lincecum wanted help with intensity management, he talked to Vogelsong. When Hunter Pence, who played with noted obsessive Roy Halladay, was asked Monday night if he knew of a pitcher who enters a more altered state than Vogelsong, he shook his head and flatly said: "No.''
"You couldn't talk to Halladay at all on the day he pitched, but they're different,'' he said. "Vogey's still intense after the game, just like before the game, and the day before the game. It's like there's this two-day zone. It's really cool, really unique. … If you forget (the day before) and say 'What's up Vogey?' you're going to get maybe a nod or something. You're like, 'Oh, he's locked in.’”
After Monday's game, Vogelsong looked as if he still had not come out of his hypnotic trance. "Honestly, I'm really tired," he said. "If you're tired when you come out of a game, it means your mind was working and you were really concentrating. I'm pretty worn down at this point mentally."
On the mound, his brain works like TiVo. Ask him what Matt Kemp did in every at-bat against him, and he'll tell you. (I've tried it; Vogelsong barely had to think before answering.) "My wife always asks 'How can you do that, but then you forget to take the garbage out?''' he said.
During games, Vogelsong talks to no one but his catcher and pitching coach until he is done. He not only observes an endless list of his own rituals; he can police those of teammates as well. In the middle of Cain's perfect game in June, the endearingly goofy Brandon Belt plopped himself into Cain's seat in the dugout. No one needed to say a word. Vogelsong just stared him down, and the space cleared out.
The ace's seat belonged indisputably to Cain this year, and he seemed unlikely to leave it unoccupied in the postseason. In three starts during the Giants' 2010 run through the World Series, he allowed no earned runs. Lincecum, with his two Cy Youngs and 14-strikeout postseason opener two years ago, still had the chair then. But Cain was ready to jump into, and then Bumgarner got in line. He threw eight shutout innings against Texas, one of the best lineups in baseball, in Game 4 of the 2010 World Series.
When these playoffs began, Lincecum became the most pedigreed middle reliever in the game, Bumgarner looked worn out and confused and Cain threw like a No. 3 starter thrust into a higher role.
No one could keep the ace's spot warm except Vogelsong, the postseason rookie, the guy whose career detoured through Japan and Venezuela until 2011. He is not Justin Verlander or CC Sabathia, going a full nine in a deciding playoff game. But if his success gave Cain a map to the Cardinals' limited vulnerabilities, the Monday performance will mean a lot more than one win.