CINCINNATI -- After eight pitches, the San Francisco Giants' postseason picture looked blindingly bright. Matt Cain was on the hill, they were playing in front of a raucous home crowd and Cincinnati Reds ace Johnny Cueto was now walking off the field with some sort of injury. Looking ahead to Game 2, Cincinnati's erratic veteran Bronson Arroyo looked like no match for 16-game winner Madison Bumgarner.
But then it all went horribly wrong. Dusty Baker pushed the right buttons in relief of Cueto in Game 1, Arroyo tossed a seven-inning gem in Game 2, the Giants pretty much failed to hit or pitch in either game and just like that, the Boys from the Bay now find themselves 27 outs away from their 2012 season coming to a grinding halt.
At this point, there are no special buttons to push or inspiring, go-get-'em speeches to give. The Giants are realists. They know what history says, that it isn't a matter of if their season will come to an end in the next three days, but rather when. Consider that in the 17 years of the Division Series, only four teams have come back from an 0-2 deficit to win three straight and advance. It's never happened in the National League. And no team has ever won three straight on the road.
If that wasn't enough, the Reds didn't lose three in a row at home all season and were 21 games over .500 at Great American Ballpark, the second-best home record in baseball.
Before and after Monday's off-day workout, the only explanation the Giants players and coaches had for how to dig out of this postseason pit came in the form of tired cliches. You know, one game at a time. Our backs are against the wall. Never say die. On and on it went. Yet the reality is that's the answer. Win on Tuesday or nothing else matters.
"Sure, it's difficult," manager Bruce Bochy said. "But they have to win that third game. We are still alive. You come out here, you play hard and you see what happens."
"Not that you wouldn't anyway," catcher Buster Posey said, "But you want to really make sure you leave everything out there."
The balance of the Giants' season will hang in the unlikeliest of right hands, that of starting pitcher Ryan Vogelsong. Two years ago, as Tim Lincecum carried San Francisco to its first World Series title in 56 years, Vogelsong's career was on life support. And that's being kind. He had just spent three years pitching in Japan and a season of bouncing around between the Phillies and Dodgers organizations.
He was on his way to winter ball in Venezuela and there was no reason to believe there would ever come a day when a manager would choose him over Lincecum to start a win-or-go-home postseason game. And yet on Monday, there was Vogelsong, sitting under the spotlight -- literally -- during an off-day media conference. Later, the long-haired Lincecum sat in front of his locker largely ignored.
Vogelsong struggled in August (6.32 ERA) and September (6.46), but Bochy selected him for Tuesday's pressure-packed assignment based on the fact that he had given up only one run in his past three starts, a span of 17 innings. Vogelsong said "yes and no" when asked Monday if he was emotional after learning he had been chosen for such an important assignment, especially considering how far he had come.
"The fact that [Bochy] is giving me the opportunity to start a game is tremendous," he said. "It's exciting. It's amazing for me. But I said this a couple days ago -- it's not about me at this point. It's about the team and what's best for us."
What's best for the Giants is having a starting pitcher last into the sixth inning, a feat that neither Cain nor Bumgarner were able to do in Games 1 or 2. The Giants staff has allowed 14 runs and 22 hits in two games. But Vogelsong hinted Monday that he saw a few things in the first two games that will prompt him to tweak his approach toward the Reds hitters.
"We need to attack some people differently," he said.
Posey put it even simpler than that.
"We've just got to get them out," he said with a smile. "That's it."
To be fair, the San Francisco offense hasn't been much better. The Giants are hitting just .143 in the series and have scored only two runs -- one on a Posey home run and another on an Aroldis Chapman wild pitch. In two games, they couldn't look more overmatched.
Opposing the Giants on Tuesday will be Homer Bailey, who hasn't allowed a run in his past 13 innings, including a no-hitter on Sept. 28, the franchise's first in 24 years.
Should the Giants beat Bailey, Bochy announced Monday that they will turn to another surprising savior for Game 4 -- Barry Zito. Though Zito is 0-2 with a 6.10 lifetime ERA against the Reds at Great American Ballpark, the Giants have won each of his past 11 starts, prompting Bochy to select him for a potential save-the-season assignment over Lincecum and Cain on three days' rest.
"When you win your last 11 games that a pitcher starts, it's a pretty good thing," Bochy said. "I think he's earned this. We all do."
But first things first for the Giants. Game 3 on Tuesday.
"We just need to win," Posey said. "And then take it from there."