The way people talked about him, Chris Carpenter was supposed to be unbeatable in the playoffs, and Ryan Vogelsong was supposed to be a little more beatable. Yet the NLCS between the Cardinals and the Giants has advanced to a Monday Game 7 in large part because, on two occasions now, Vogelsong and San Francisco have bested Carpenter and St. Louis. In Game 2, Vogelsong allowed one run in seven innings, while Carpenter went four innings and allowed five runs, two of which were earned. In Sunday’s Game 6, Vogelsong allowed one run in seven innings, while Carpenter went four innings and allowed five runs, two of which were earned. Ryan Vogelsong isn’t the only reason the Giants are still alive, but he might be the biggest one, and he’s earned this post.
Vogelsong was outstanding on Sunday, and he didn’t allow his first hit until there were two out in the fifth. He came out amped up, throwing his fastball harder than usual in the early innings, and he struck out six of the first nine batters he faced. He wound up with a career-high nine strikeouts, and while he acknowledged later that he got away with some mistakes, all good pitching performances require that a pitcher get away with some mistakes. Vogelsong made mistakes, but he didn’t make many of them.
The challenge when writing about a stellar performance is trying to capture every last detail. I’m not going to even accept that challenge and instead I’m going to write about Vogelsong’s one pitch that has most stuck with me from Sunday night. There were a lot of really good ones, but I’m still hung up on an Allen Craig swinging strikeout in the top of the fourth. On a night that Ryan Vogelsong was fantastic, I think the pitch he threw to get rid of Allen Craig in the fourth was the most fantastic.
For the setting, there were two out and none on. In the first, Vogelsong had frozen Craig with a two-seam fastball that ran back over the plate. In the fourth, Vogelsong got ahead of Craig 0-and-1 with a first-pitch inside fastball, and then he got ahead 0-and-2 with a cutter over the outer edge. Vogelsong painted both sides with precision for called strikes. The third pitch was a high fastball, a chase fastball, out of the zone for a ball.
The fourth pitch was one of Vogelsong’s mistakes. What was supposed to be a low-away curve was instead a high curve over the inner half and Craig yanked it foul. Vogelsong knew he screwed up, Buster Posey knew Vogelsong screwed up, and Craig knew Vogelsong screwed up, and at that point Craig could probably eliminate the curveball from his mind. He’s a power hitter and Vogelsong had just hung a spinner. Sure enough, Vogelsong wouldn’t throw another curve in the at-bat.
So the fifth pitch was an outside fastball, on the edge. Maybe too close for a 1-and-2 pitch, but Vogelsong had already frozen Craig once. This time, Craig seemed prepared.
That’s a good swing that Craig took, and his timing was right on. Maybe too comfortable a swing for a 1-and-2 swing. Posey identified that Craig was expecting a two-strike fastball, so that’s when Posey elected to change things up with an appropriately-named changeup.
That’s a way worse swing, an off-balance swing. A better 1-and-2 swing, for the pitcher and catcher. The location was virtually identical to that of the previous fastball, but now Craig had to think differently. He hadn’t seen Vogelsong throw him a changeup before. In three plate appearances in Game 2, Craig had seen Vogelsong’s fastball, cutter, and curve. To this point in Game 6, Craig had seen Vogelsong’s fastball, cutter, and curve. Craig had seen Vogelsong’s changeup once before, on May 31, 2011, but that experience presumably wasn’t fresh in his mind. Now the changeup was fresh in his mind, in a two-strike count. Craig couldn’t sit fastball anymore.
So Posey called for a fastball that ended up being a perfect fastball. Vogelsong made the two-seamer run, and this is about as unhittable as it gets in a 1-and-2 count.
Craig didn’t know what to look for. Vogelsong threw him a fastball that started out on the inner edge, so Craig had to protect. The fastball ran in toward the belt and didn’t give Craig a chance to do anything. By the time it reached the front plane, this pitch was several inches inside, and tailing. Craig’s best bet was to barely just get a piece and stay alive, and he couldn’t. That’s how Ryan Vogelsong ended the fourth inning, and that’s the one pitch from Sunday I can’t shake from my mind.
As it happens, when you talk to any pitcher, the pitcher will tell you he leans on past experience when facing a batter. He’ll think about what’s worked and what hasn’t, and he’ll go over all of this with his catcher. Let’s go back to Game 2 of the NLCS for a moment. In the top of the third, Ryan Vogelsong faced Allen Craig, and the count progressed to 2-and-2. Here’s how Vogelsong struck Craig out swinging.
That’s the exact same pitch and the exact same swing, with the exact same result. And I mean that’s the exact same pitch. Okay, so the count for one of them was 2-and-2, and the count for the other was 1-and-2. But consider the PITCHf/x information:
|Trait||Game 2||Game 6|
Essentially the same velocity, the same location, and the same movement. Maybe it was a coincidence, or maybe it was the plan. It certainly looks like a good plan, in retrospect. What worked once against Allen Craig worked once more, days later.
Ryan Vogelsong threw a lot of pitches in his winning performance on Sunday, and many of those pitches were great. One fastball to Allen Craig in particular, I think, was the most great. Perhaps you disagree, but if you’re a Giants fan, there are worse things than disagreeing about which was the most great pitch that Ryan Vogelsong threw in a playoff game.