Ryan Vogelsong turns into postseason hero

It’s time to add another chapter to the Ryan Vogelsong story. Top prospect. Trade. Injuries. Career in jeopardy. Three years in Japan. Triple-A roster filler. Reclamation project. All-Star.

And now, postseason hero.

The Giants gave Vogelsong an early 5-0 lead after battering Chris Carpenter in the first two innings, and Vogelsong took over from there, taking a no-hitter through two outs in the fifth, allowing just one run and striking out a career-high nine batters. The bullpen held on for a 5-1 victory, and the stage is set for a dramatic seventh game in the NLCS.

Vogelsong was tremendous, pounding the Cardinals’ right-handed batters inside with his two-seam fastball that rides in, and -- when it’s moving especially well like it was on this night -- dips down, leading to hitters swinging over the top of pitches. It may have been the best movement Vogelsong had all season: Eight of the nine strikeouts were swinging strikeouts.

It was the third straight outstanding postseason start for Vogelsong. Against the Reds in the Division Series with the Giants down two games to none, he allowed one run in five innings, keeping the team close during Homer Bailey's no-hit bid. In Game 2 of this series, after the Cardinals had won the opener, he allowed one run in seven innings.

It’s just another example of the unpredictable nature of the baseball postseason: A few weeks ago, it appeared Vogelsong may be the odd man out in the Giants’ rotation. Through Aug. 8, Vogelsong’s 2.27 ERA lead the National League. Then came a rough patch. The Nationals pounded him for eight runs in 2 2/3 innings; the Padres knocked him out after three innings; the Braves hit three home runs off him; the Diamondbacks twice knocked him out in the fourth inning. In a seven-start stretch, he averaged barely four innings per start, posted a 10.31 ERA and gave up a .366 batting average.

But this is baseball. Just like that, Vogelsong turned it around, pitched well in his final three regular-season starts and now is the Giants player most responsible for getting them one win away from the World Series.

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Sports writers love to create storylines and something akin to mythological treatment of players whenever possible. One of those themes heading into this series was Carpenter as a postseason warrior, a pitcher who can dig deep into his soul to deliver October greatness, a modern-day Bob Gibson. Even though he had been injured most of the season, making just three starts, he was still that guy with the 9-2 career postseason record, the guy who beat Roy Halladay 1-0 last year and won Game 7 of the World Series. When he pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings to beat the Nationals, that image was further reinforced.

Instead, he’s now had two straight poor starts matched up against Vogelsong, struggling to hit his spots and make big pitches when he’s had to. You can chalk it up to a pitcher who maybe isn’t quite 100 percent, but it’s also possible that Carpenter’s luck was just due to turn against him. He wouldn’t be the first pitcher to have this happen to him. Jack Morris, for example, is remembered for that Game 7 performance in 1991 and two wins in the 1984 World Series, but he lost three games in the 1992 postseason and has a career 3.80 ERA. Morris didn’t have a magical ability to ramp it up in the postseason; he had one magical performance.

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OK, Game 7, Kyle Lohse versus Matt Cain. Speaking of postseason magic, Cain memorably allowed just one unearned run in three postseason starts in 2010. This year, he’s allowed nine runs in 17 1/3 innings and failed to pitch out of the sixth in two of his three starts. The exciting thing about this matchup is both teams are rolling out the guy their managers deemed their No. 1; we don’t often get that in Game 7s anymore, due to the somewhat random alignment of pitching rotations and series length.

Defense will be key. You’ve seen some shaky defense from the Cardinals as is. Pete Kozma and David Freese are both liabilities on the left side of the infield, and with Carlos Beltran battling a sore knee and Matt Holliday fighting back stiffness (he didn’t play in Game 6) the range in the outfield corners is also problematic. When Allen Craig plays left, the defense is probably downgraded another notch. In fact, if you go position by position, you’d probably give the Giants the obvious edge at five spots, even at best at center field and second base, and the Cardinals winning only behind the plate with Yadier Molina.

This hasn’t really been an exciting series, with scores of 7-1, 8-3, 5-0 and 6-1 and no one-run games. Most of the games were decided early. I expect Game 7 to reverse that trend and be a low-scoring affair, with the bullpens playing key roles. The Giants should be in good shape if they can get the ball to closer Sergio Romo with a lead against those Cardinals right-handed batters. He held right-handers to a .192 average during the regular season with a 57/6 SO/BB ratio. Even though he rarely cracks 90 mph with his fastball, the movement he gets on the changeup makes him tough. I give him the slight edge over Jason Motte, who served up nine home runs, although Mike Matheny’s willingness to use Motte for more than three outs is a potential advantage.

In the end, I predict ... well, who can predict what will happen? This is postseason baseball.