With a much different team, Giants poised for 2nd title in 3 years
DETROIT -- The last time the Giants were in the World Series, Brandon Crawford attended a game as a fan in the stands. He and Brandon Belt both played part of that year in Double A for a club nicknamed the Flying Squirrels, which actually meant they were a level ahead of Hector Sanchez, who was in Class A ball.
Gregor Blanco, Angel Pagan, Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro were with other organizations. And Ryan Vogelsong was pitching in the Venezuelan winter league, watching an inning here or there of the team that drafted him, but really focusing on the opportunity in front of him. "I was pitching for my life in baseball," Vogelsong said.
The Giants, who knocked off the Tigers 2-0 in Game 3 on Saturday night, now sit one win away from their second World Series in three years, and the most remarkable part about San Francisco's recent run is how drastic the turnover has been on the roster has been in the last two years, yet how similar its play and performance have been in the postseason.
"It's been mostly pitching and defense," Crawford said, "and that's kind of how 2010 was."
Someone familiar will start Sunday's Game 4 -- ace Matt Cain -- in hopes of completing the sweep, but a key part of San Francisco's story this year has been all the new faces.
Of the 10 Giants who started World Series Game 3 -- nine in the lineup and one on the mound -- only two participated in their last championship season. None of the other eight, all named above, were on the organization's 40-man roster two years ago. The two players who entered Saturday's game off the bench, pitchers Tim Lincecum and Sergio Romo, also are in new roles. Lincecum is a starter-turned-middle reliever while Romo was a set-up man who is now a closer.
Buster Posey was then, as now, the starting catcher and a middle-of-the-lineup hitter. And Pablo Sandoval made one start two years ago against Texas but otherwise rode the pine; this year, however, he has made history (three home runs in Game 1) and is a likely Series MVP candidate (7-for-11, .636 average).
The willingness of the Giants' front office -- led by general manager Brian Sabean and assisted by club vice presidents Dick Tidrow and Bobby Evans -- to reinvent its roster and take chances on players without stellar track records has paid dividends.
Look no further than the Venezuelan winter leagues for that. Game 3's top two performers, Vogelsong and Blanco, both made their impressions in the South American offseason circuit.
Long before Vogelsong shut out the Tigers for 5 2/3 innings on Saturday, which was his seventh straight start in which he allowed one or zero runs, he was the ultimate baseball nomad.
The Giants had drafted Vogelsong back in 1998 but he only pitched parts of two seasons for the organization before being traded to Pittsburgh, where he spent four years with a 6.00 ERA. Then he went to Japan for three seasons before returning to North America to pitch in Triple A for the Angels and Phillies in 2010.
He then went to Venezuela in late 2010, with the prospect that he might be entering his final year of professional ball, when he caught the eyes of Jose Alguacil, a Giants roving instructor who was the club's primary scout for Vogelsong, and also of hitting coach Hensley Meulens, who was managing Los Bravos de Margarita.
Meuelens had also known Vogelsong when they were both with the Pirates, and the coach saw a huge change in the journeyman right-hander when he shut out the Bravos for seven innings. "When I saw him in Venezuela," Meulens said, "I thought, 'This guy can help us out.' ... This guy has learned how to pitch."
Vogelsong, an All-Star in 2011, was among the NL's leaders in ERA this year before a rough patch that was partly the creation of his trouble commanding his two-seam fastball. He regained the feel for it and has reaped the rewards.
"It's shown up again here at the right time," Vogelsong said. "It's a big pitch for me. It sets up everything else that I want to do."
Similarly, Meulens saw Blanco tear up the Venezuelan league in late 2011, earning MVP honors while playing for Los Tiburones de La Guaira, where he was teammates with Sanchez. Meulens put in a good word with the Giants for Blanco, who received a minor league contract and a big league camp invite. It was a fortuitous fit, and Blanco got hot at the right time, not only making the club but also logging 141 games. He has starred in the World Series -- he tripled home a run and later scored in Game 3's second inning, added a great running catch in the ninth inning and had two hits in Game 2.
"He told me he'd like me to sign here," Blanco said of Meulens. "As soon as I got to spring training, I started hitting and all of a sudden now I'm here in the World Series, so it's been great."
Blanco is one of several recent Giants additions who has helped shape a change in offensive tactics. While the rotation has remained largely intact -- except for the addition of Vogelsong and the playoff role of Barry Zito -- the lineup has been overhauled in terms of personnel and approach, a change embodied by Blanco.
"He's not afraid to go into deep counts," Meulens said. "He takes pitches -- and we didn't have that the year before when we swung and missed a lot."
The 2010 Giants slugged 162 home runs while scoring 697 runs, but the '11 Giants, who failed to make the postseason, batted just .242 with 23 more strikeouts than the previous year but with 41 fewer homers and a league-worst 570 runs. The 2012 edition hit just 103 homers (last in the league) but scored 718 runs by stringing together rallies and batting .269.
"That's been the key -- get the right mix and, no matter what year it is or who it is, we've got to continue to work," Meulens said.
With that lineup and more of its trademark stellar pitching, San Francisco is now on the doorstep of a championship with a commanding 3-0 lead. In two years the Giants remade the roster but not the results.