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Giants ride traditional October groove en route to spot in NLCS

SAN FRANCISCO — In the old western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, there is a scene in which Sundance is asked to prove that he's accurate with a six-shooter by hitting a rock off in the distance. He takes out his pistol and shoots while standing still, missing completely. The man to whom he's trying to prove himself starts to walk away, unimpressed, until Sundance says, "Can I move?" This time he whips the pistol out of his holster and shoots twice, shattering the rock, and says, "I'm better when I move."

Giants capitalize on Nats' mistakes, reach third NLCS in five years

You might not be especially impressed with the San Francisco Giants during the regular season. They weren't quite good enough to win the NL West, and Ryan Vogelsong, their starting pitcher in Game 4 of the NL Division Series on Tuesday night, had a rough September, going 0-4 with a 5.53 ERA and 1.52 WHIP in the season's final month. But before you walk away, can you take another look at Vogelsong and the Giants in October? They're better in October.

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They proved that again on Tuesday night, finishing off the Washington Nationals with a 3-2 victory that clinched the best-of-five series in four games and sent them into the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. San Francisco's chances of extending its every-even-year run of World Series titles — adding a 2014 trophy to the ones it won in 2010 and '12 — just became a little more realistic. If the Giants get to October, they get through October.

Their struggles in Game 3, a 4-1 loss that briefly gave the Nats' hope of a comeback, were just a fluke. The Giants were back to their old ways on Tuesday night, winning with pitching (Vogelsong went 5 2/3 innings and gave up only one earned run on two hits), defense (there was a Pence-meets-fence moment when rightfielder Hunter Pence leaped to snare a Jayson Werth liner just before crashing into the wall) and opportunism. The Giants scored their three runs on a bases-loaded walk, a groundout and a critical wild pitch by reliever Aaron Barrett in the seventh that brought Joe Panik home with what proved to be the decisive run.

"We do it in strange ways sometimes," first baseman Brandon Belt said. "But we do it."

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With two recent titles under their belt, Tuesday night was kind of the same old, same old for the Giants. The champagne celebration in the clubhouse was enthusiastic, but with the possible exception of a brief, Pence-led rendition of the team chant, "Yes, yes, yes!" while spraying bubbly, it wasn't over the top.

"We've done this before," Vogelsong said. "It doesn't make us appreciate it any less, but we have an understanding of how much more work is left to do."

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Vogelsong did his share of work in Game 4, reversing his struggles of the last month. He spent the 10 days since his last start trying to fine tune his mechanics with pitching coach Dave Righetti, watching tape of himself from when he was pitching well.

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"Just back to basics a little bit, really," he said. "Doing some drill work, doing some stuff in the outfield on flat ground. Really just trying to clean up some things that got away from me a little bit during the season."

Vogelsong, 37, is perhaps the most intense of the Giants' starters, although not as outwardly as Jake Peavy, and that inner fire may be better suited to the pressures of the postseason. He is also in some ways as good a symbol of the Giants as anyone in that he has his regular-season ups and downs, but he consistently ratchets up his game in the postseason. In his five playoff starts, he has a 1.19 ERA, and the Giants have won all five.

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Compare that to Gio Gonzalez, the Nationals' starter in Game 4. Gonzalez continued to provide evidence that he's a better regular-season pitcher than he is in October. His only previous postseason starts were in the NLDS against the Cardinals in 2012, when he walked seven in Game 1, then couldn't hold a 6-0 lead as the Nats blew Game 5. On Tuesday, he sabotaged himself by booting a comebacker from Juan Perez that put two men on with no one out in the second. Then his indecisiveness on a Vogelsong sacrifice kept the Nats from getting anyone out on the play and loaded the bases. From there he walked Crawford to force in one run; a Panik groundout made it 2-0.

Asked to assess Gonzalez's performance, Nationals manager Matt Williams said, "I thought he was okay."

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Williams own performance might not earn even that high a grade. He used his pitchers strangely on Tuesday, going with Matt Thornton and Barrett in spots when, given the must-win circumstances, he might have been wiser to go with his best relievers, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen. He also never turned to his ace, Stephen Strasburg, who was available to pitch out of the bullpen on three days rest.

"Did I have a scenario in mind when we were going to Stephen?" Williams said. "No, it's irrelevant. Doesn't matter. He didn't pitch."

The Nats go home with a growing reputation as underachievers, of having misplayed and mismanaged another postseason in which they might have been the most talented team. They have stars in Strasburg and Harper, who hit another monster home run that briefly tied the game on Tuesday, but they lack whatever it is — chemistry, coolness, confidence, maybe a touch of luck — that has made the Giants so successful.

"I can't really explain it for you, what happens to us this time of year," Pence said.

Said Belt, "We get asked that a lot and I wish I had a better answer."

Explaining how they do what they do is beyond them. Apparently it's the only October task the Giants can't handle.