Three Strikes: Well-traveled Vogelsong a surprising October star

Ryan Vogelsong is a surprising October hero for the Giants, the Royals' outfielders are snuffing out the Orioles and more notes from the ALCS and NLCS.
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SAN FRANCISCO — The Giants are one win away from giving the ball to ace Madison Bumgarner to pitch them into the World Series for a third time since 2010. The man who can get them to that brink, righthanded starter Ryan Vogelsong, is simply the best postseason pitcher nobody wanted.

Vogelsong is the only pitcher ever to allow no more than one run in each of his first five postseason starts. A sixth such gem in NLCS Game 4 today against St. Louis would match Curt Schilling (1993-2001) for the longest such streak of postseason starts at any point.

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The Giants have won all five postseason games started by Vogelsong by Marichal-like scores: 2-1, 7-1, 6-1, 2-0, and 3-2. Vogelsong (3-0, 1.19) has the lowest ERA in postseason history among undefeated pitchers with at least five starts. That Vogelsong could stitch together such a run in October is a credit to his tenacity more than his stuff.

The short story of the 37-year-old Vogelsong's long journey is that he was a walk-on at Division II Kutztown University who was drafted in 1998 by the Giants and traded to the Pirates. He blew out his elbow in his second start in 2001, was out of the major leagues for four years between the ages of 29 and 32 while he pitched in Japan and in the minors, was released twice, pitched in Venezuelan winter ball at age 33 and has since had a four-year run with the Giants — one that nearly ended after an injury-shortened season last year.

San Francisco declined the 2014 option on Vogelsong rather than pay the bargain price of $6.5 million. Vogelsong initially was upset that the Giants wouldn't pick up the option, but the club persuaded him to come back on a $5 million deal plus incentives. Sixteen free agent starting pitchers received more guaranteed money last winter. Vogelsong slogged through an 8-13 season, though he often was betrayed by poor run support. He was 7-0 when San Francisco scored more than two runs and 1-13 when it didn't.

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So here he is — despite the postseason record, more of a five- to six-inning pitcher than the second coming of Christy Mathewson — with yet another chance to prove his doubters wrong. At the very least, he is comfortable in the postseason environment.

"You can't replace the way it feels to pitch in the playoffs," he said. "You know, I said it's what you play your whole life for — growing up in the backyard, your whole little league, high school, college, minor leagues — to get into these situations. So they are all exciting. They all bring a little bit different emotion depending on the game and the situation. But they are all exciting and, you know, the fans here are electric all the time. So it's going to be intense."

Complete postseason schedule, start times, TV listings and recaps

2. Royals In The Outfield

Royals' pitching, defense top Orioles, has K.C. one win from World Series

The Royals have absolutely smothered the Orioles in the ALCS, and Kansas City's 3-0 series lead heading into today's Game 4 is no fluke. Baltimore has held a lead after only two of the 28 innings played in this series. While the games may seem tight, Kansas City has been in steady control of the series throughout, primarily because of its pitching and defense. More specifically, its outfield defense might be the best anybody has seen in October.

You want Devon White and Joe Carter from the 1992 and '93 Blue Jays? Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy and Tony Armas of the 1981 Athletics? I don't think any have been better than Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson, with a bit of Nori Aoki mixed in.

It has been too hard for the Orioles to get rallies going, with the Royals' outfielders chasing down everything and the pitching staff allowing few hard-hit balls. Baltimore is a flyball-hitting team that is showing anxiety at the plate, compounding its problems stitching hits together.

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The five teams that hit flyballs most often this year were the Athletics, Cubs, Orioles, Mets and Astros — all of whom may be found on the golf course as soon as Thursday. It's a fine strategy for Baltimore when it hits home runs, but those have been too hard to come by against Kansas City's power pitching, especially out of the bullpen.

The Orioles have hit only 24 groundballs in this series while hitting 39 flyballs and striking out 21 times. They were 18th in baseball this year according to batting average on balls in play, and the combination of their flyball tendencies and Kansas City's superlative defense has squelched their offense. The line scores from theses games may suggest this has been a tight series, but there is nothing fluky about what the Royals are doing. They are a nightmare matchup for the Orioles.

3. News and Notes

• Giants manager Bruce Bochy hinted that he will be less likely to use righthanded reliever Hunter Strickland against lefthanded hitters in high-leverage spots. Strickland had allowed four home runs this season to lefthanders, all on fastballs over the plate. But as Bochy pointed out, Strickland bounced back from the game-tying homer he yielded to the Cardinals' Matt Adams in NLCS Game 2 by striking out Jhonny Peralta and Tony Cruz. "He doesn't get rattled," Bochy said.

• San Francisco's Tim Hudson had never hit a pitcher with a pitch in his entire major league career, and no pitcher had been hit by a postseason pitch since Steve Carlton in 1977. And then Hudson hit Cardinals counterpart John Lackey with a pitch in NLCS Game 3.

• The Giants have worked with a "sleep consultant" since the 2010 postseason about travel plans and sleep patterns. As they did after NLCS Game 2 in St. Louis, they tend to remain in the road city on what for most teams are getaway nights with flights home after the game. The Giants prefer to travel the next morning to disrupt sleep patterns as little as possible. The one time they did take a late-night getaway flight — after Game 2 of the NLDS in Washington — they lost the next game at home.

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• The more you see the package of impressive skills of Cardinals rookie outfielder Randal Grichuk — raw power at the plate, exceptional bat speed, terrific throwing arm, aggressiveness on defense, tremendous baserunning skills — the more it looks like St. Louis stole him from the Angels in that David Freese trade. That combination is very reminiscent of Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun.

• According to Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, 5-foot-9 second baseman Kolten Wong has the fastest bat speed on the club. Asked to explain where it comes from, Wong said his father developed unique drills for him as a child in Hawaii, including swinging a bat at a car tire. "He's still my hitting coach," Wong said. The second baseman said his father called him after Wong became the second-youngest player to hit a postseason walkoff home run with his blast in Game 2. "He was pretty emotional," said Wong, whose mother passed away last winter. "He was crying."

• Department of the Weird: In Game 3 of the 1914 World Series, with runners at first and second and no outs in extra innings, Philadelphia A's pitcher Bullet Joe Bush picked up a bunt and threw it away, giving the Boston Braves a 5-4 win. In Game 3 of the NLCS, with runners at first and second and no outs in the extra innings, Cardinals reliever Randy Choate picked up a bunt and threw it away, giving the Giants a 5-4 win. Same game number in a postseason series, same baserunner situation, same number of outs, same walk-off mistake by the pitcher, same final score — exactly 100 years and five days apart.

In between, there has been just one other walk-off postseason error by a pitcher: by Baltimore Orioles lefthander Pete Richert. He did it in Game 3 of the 1969 World Series against the Mets by — you guessed it — throwing away a bunt with runners on first and second and no outs in extra innings.