SAN FRANCISCO -- There were no shattered mirrors in the visitors' clubhouse at AT&T Park, no wayward black felines, no ladders under which anyone might have absentmindedly walked. But it seemed clear, even an hour and a half before the first pitch was thrown in Sunday evening's Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, that luck would not be on the side of the St. Louis Cardinals. It was then that the club announced that Matt Holliday, its regular season leader in hits, RBIs and OPS, had been scratched from the lineup due to tightness in his lower back. Holliday's lumbar distress worsened as the game progressed, said his manager, Mike Matheny, and his situation was not helped by the steady string of misfortune that befell his teammates, as he watched from the bench as they lost to the Giants by the score of 6-1, ensuring that the series will end with a decisive Game 7.
This was an evening on which little went right for St. Louis. "You have a rare few that can compete when they don't have their whole arsenal, and Chris Carpenter is one of those," Matheny had said of his usually stalwart starter, but on Sunday even the recently injured Carpenter's guts and experience couldn't make up for the fact that he seemed unable to properly throw a straight fastball, forcing him to rely on a mix of cutters and sinkers and changeups that gave the Giants little trouble. They led 5-0 after the second inning, and Carpenter lasted only two innings more.
It was also a night on which every foul pop off the Giants' bats seemed to find the first few rows of seats, while every one off those of the Cardinals found the Giants' gloves. It was a night on which the normally sure-handed shortstop Pete Kozma inexplicably could not quite pick up a slow roller with men on first and third and one out in the second inning, allowing the Giants' second run to score and setting the stage for their third, fourth and fifth. It was a night on which usually routine Giants grounders caromed off invisible divots in their otherwise immaculately groomed infield dirt; one, struck by Gregor Blanco in the fifth, miraculously hopped over the head of first baseman Matt Carpenter, and second baseman Daniel Descalso was not as lucky as his teammate in the eighth, when Brandon Belt's grounder hit him squarely in the chin.
It was, finally, a night on which the Giants' starter, Ryan Vogelsong, had tied his career high for strikeouts -- eight -- by the fifth inning. After the game, Vogelsong gave much of the credit for his second straight silencing of the Cardinals' usually potent bats -- he ended up with nine strikeouts in seven innings, and allowed just four hits and one run -- to luck, too. "It comes down to executing pitches and getting lucky on the ones you don't make, they foul them off or swing through," he said. "And I still think that in Game 2, my stuff, overall, was better. But tonight I just had some good misses and some good fortune."
Vogelsong, surely, was being overly modest, as fortune had far less to do with his third straight dominant postseason outing -- he is now, in the playoffs, 2-0 with a 1.42 ERA and a .162 batting average against -- than baffling, fearless, overpowering stuff. The Cardinals, bereft of Holliday as they were, are a club that generally feasts on fastballs, and yet Vogelsong came out of the gate firing them again and again -- fastballs that touched 94-miles-per-hour, with a consistently late bite. Vogelsong set the evening's tone in the top of the first, when he struck out the side on 18 pitches, all but two of them fastballs. In the second, twelve of his thirteen pitches were fastballs, and he struck out two more Cardinals. When he came out for the third, he had that 5-0 lead, and even though no lead is safe against St. Louis in October, Game 7, somehow, already seemed a certainty.
To ascribe Vogelsong's performance to luck, further, is to overlook his remarkable journey to becoming, at 35, what he is: the Giants' stopper, and, on a staff that includes Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, their most reliable starter. To get there, he had to endure Tommy John surgery, and washing out of the big leagues at the age of 28 and again, very nearly, at 33, with three years in Japan in between. "I feel like all the stuff that I went through, going to Japan, and going to winter ball at 33 years old, and getting back here last year, is stuff that [God] was doing for me to get me prepared for this moment," he said. "And I truly believe that."
His work ethic carried him through it all, his teammates say. "One thing for sure is every time I walked by the gym, this guy was in there working out," said Marco Scutaro of his initial impression of Vogelsong upon the second baseman's arrival in San Francisco in July. "I was like, 'Damn, bro, you got a lot of energy.'" He also has faith, and his club seems to be feeding off of it.
"Everyone counted us out four or five times this year already," Vogelsong said the other day. "First, when [Brian] Wilson went down. People said we couldn't do it.
"Then we lost Melky [Cabrera], unfortunately. People said we couldn't do it.
"The Dodgers made the big trade. People said we weren't going to do it.
"We go down two [games] to Cincinnati, they said we're not going to do it.
"I think it's perseverance through the whole season, is where we draw the confidence that it's not over until the last out is made."
So no, the Cardinals had no luck on Sunday, but it was Vogelsong who ensured that state of affairs would not change. Now the Giants have won five consecutive elimination games, but in Monday's Game 7 -- in which Cain will pitch against Kyle Lohse -- they will face an opponent that has won six straight such games. All of the luck, and confidence, and perseverance and talent in the world will not prevent one of those streaks from coming to an end.