Vogelsong, Blanco: Non-roster invitees to World Series heroes

Vogelsong, Blanco: Non-roster invitees to World Series heroes
October 28, 2012, 7:29 am
Share This Post

DETROIT There were two lineup cards in the Giantsclubhouse Saturday night, and they did not resemble each other in theslightest.

Manager Bruce Bochy wrote the familiar one. He chose hisstarting nine for Game 3 at Comerica Park.

Giants hitting coach Hensley Bam Bam Meulens jotted downthe other one. His players were 2,400 miles away, in a beach town on theCaribbean coast, and what do you expect? They dont put off the VenezuelanWinter League just because one of their managers is still busy with the WorldSeries.

When Meulens heads down to join Los Bravos de Margarita in afew days, he should expect the Giants to supply him with a thick stack ofpapers standard uniform player contracts, enough to paper over a hotel room.And maybe a second stack, just to make sure.

Sure, successful organizations build through the draft, theypick the right investments on the free-agent front, they make shrewd trades andthey employ minor league coaches who teach prospects how to play the game theright way.

But when the Giants reached the doorstep of the World Serieswith a 2-0 victory Saturday night, their principal contributors were a well-traveledright-hander and a hustling little left fielder who were neither drafted,developed nor signed to a rich deal that warranted a jersey-lifting newsconference.

Ryan Vogelsong and Gregor Blanco signed minor leaguecontracts as non-roster invitees in back-to-back winters, both having caughtthe clubs eye in the Venezuelan Winter League.

And on a mittens-and-mufflers night in Detroit, they made all the differenceas the Giants moved within a victory of what would be the franchises firstWorld Series sweep since 1954, when Willie Mays made his iconic basket catch to turnaside the powerful Cleveland Indians.

I was in Venezuela pitching basically for my life for mylife in baseball, said Vogelsong, who had been released from two Triple-Aclubs in 2010.

I was just hoping for a good opportunity to be in the bigleagues, said Blanco, who hit .201 for Washingtons Triple-A affiliate in 2011.

The Giants, starting with Meulens and roving minor leagueinfield coach Jose Alguacil, saw something more.

He always was a guy who could get on base, Meulens said ofBlanco, who was the league MVP in Venezuela. But I saw something differentlast winter. He was even more patient. He had a knack of hitting left-handersand right-handers. He played defense and he had gap power that would play inout park. Thats why I was intrigued with bringing him on board.

Blanco played for La Guaira, which was Ozzie Guillensformer club. Blanco was very close to signing with Guillens Miami Marlins totry to win a backup outfield job, but Meulens told him that the Giants wouldgive him a great shot in the spring.

It was a leap of faith on his part, Giants vice presidentBobby Evans said. Nothing was guaranteed and so you have to trust the baseballpeople that youre going to get the honest look that youre promised.

Blanco insisted that he speak directly with Evans and hadhis agent dial the number. After a reassuring conversation, he put pen topaper. Then he showed up to Scottsdale and turned every exhibition game into adazzling display of speed, hard hits and running catches.

We werent two weeks into spring training and he was makingour club, Evans said, laughing.

Meulens was convinced even before that.

Definitely, the day he walked into camp, I knew this guywould help us out, Meulens said. Its the way he plays. Hes not afraid to godeep in counts and we hadnt done that the year before. We needed good at-batsfrom guys who dont strike out.

Weve seen three good pitchers in this series but we grindat-bats and get their pitch count up and keep the line moving.

Blanco did that in the second inning against right-handerAnibal Sanchez. He saw a fastball and a curve. He saw a two-seamer that ran andanother fastball that cut. He fouled one of them off, and then fouled achangeup, and then Sanchez came back with the one pitch he hadnt thrown yet.It was a slider, and it caught too much of the plate.

I was just trying to put the ball in play, Blanco said.Angel Pagan and I talked about that, especially in this park. There is so muchroom out there. Just put it in play and anything can happen.

Good things happen when you barrel the pitch and send it 400feet to the deepest part of right-center field. Blancos triple gave the Giantsa 1-0 lead, and it made him the first player in franchise history to own twotriples in one World Series.

It was emblematic of a team that hit the fewest home runs inthe majors but the most triples, who had the second fewest strikeouts in the NLand who strung together hits and kept taking an extra 90 feet to score 718 runs far more than the 570 they scored a year earlier. And when they lost Melky Cabrera, who was leading the majors in hits and runs when he was suspended Aug. 15, they found a way to keep going with Blanco as the primary left fielder.

The Giants didnt make a big offensive splash on thefree-agent market last winter. It was these Tigers who did the cannonball in the deep end, signing Prince Fielder toa nine-year, 212 million contract.

But the Giants saw a player a continent away who had some skillsand fit their system, and they moved aggressively to get him.

Blanco went to the wall, all right. He sprinted into the leftfield corner and caught Jhonny Peraltas fly ball in the narrow space betweenthe foul line and the wall, securing the first of Sergio Romos three outs in the ninth.

Im thinking, Two outs to go! Romo said. Hes not afraidof anything. Hes played that way since he got here. Hes fearless and hell goget those balls for you.

Said Blanco: I was full speed, I just put the glove out andthe ball pretty much caught itself."

The ball caught itself. So it has gone in this World Series for the Giants, who became the first club to post consecutiveshutouts since the 1966 Baltimore Orioles. Their staff boasts two former CyYoung Award winners, as well as the author of a perfect game who started for the NLAll-Star team.

But their truest ace is found elsewhere in Vogelsong, whose story just keepsgetting better. He competed with stuff that graded a tick below those searing,darting pitches he threw to beat the St. Louis Cardinals twice in the NLCS, orthe Reds in that Game 3 in Cincinnati that was their seafloor.

But he competed. He always does that.

I remember the game when Vogey threw seven shutout inningsagainst my team, Meulens said. I was aware of him from the Pirates, too. Buthe was a different guy in Venezuela. Was he better than the five starters wehad? No, but he could jump in and help us out.

The Giants had kept in touch with Vogelsong, a formerprospect dealt to the Pirates in 2001 for Jason Schmidt, both before and afterhe went to pitch in Japan. Meulens was one of the major recruiters in gettinghim to sign with the Giants, after his strong winter in Venezuela led tomultiple offers.

Maybe its time to give Bam Bam a bonus.

Vogelsong has been more than just a solid starting pitcher andinspirational tale over the past two years. Hes doing historic stuff thispostseason.

After holding the Tigers off the board for 5 23 innings,Vogelsong became just the fifth pitcher in history to make four starts in asingle postseason in which he gave up one run or less. Curt Schilling, JohnSmoltz, John Blue Moon Odom and Burt Hooton are good company.

And Vogelsongs 1.09 ERA is the lowest by a starting pitcherin a single postseason, with a minimum of 24 innings, since Orel Hershiser(1.05) for the 1988 Dodgers.

No question: Vogelsong is the Giants bulldog.

I didnt think my stuff was as good as the NLCS, but Ireally just tried to hit Busters glove as many times as I could, saidVogelsong, who pitched around five hits and four walks. And when the guys areplaying deep behind you, it encourages you to put the ball in play.

You know, its my first World Series. Ive been waiting forthis since I was five years old, and I wasnt going to go down without a fight,thats for sure.

He had the fight of his life in the fifth inning, after theTigers loaded the bases with one out on two singles and a walk. Vogelsong struck out QuintinBerry with fastballs up and away. Tigers manager Jim Leyland called it thebiggest at-bat of the night, remarking that Berry still had a thought wormingthrough his brain -- that changeupVogelsong threw him to induce a double play in his previous at-bat.

All apologies to Leyland, but the at-bat that everyone willremember from Game 3 came next.

Miguel Cabrera, who won the first Triple Crown in 45 years,stepped to the plate and he was impossible to avoid. He hit .420 with two outsand runners in scoring position during the regular season. He finished with 44home runs and 137 RBIs.

Vogelsong had one place to go.

You know what? You just go with your gut, catcher BusterPosey said. If I put something down and hes not convinced, hell shake. Butwe were on the same page there.

Fastball in. Vogelsong threw it and Cabrera nearly flickedit down the right field line. It landed six feet foul.

Some pitchers, spooked, might have gone away with the next pitch.Vogelsong did not. He put his head in the lions mouth again.

Hes the best hitter in the game, Vogelsong said. I wasjust trying to make a pitch, and the way we were playing defense, just to gethim to put a ball in play somewhere. Because I had a good feeling we were goingto catch it if he did.

Vogelsong trusted his defense. He trusted himself.

His inside fastball was just up enough to jam Cabrera, andthe games most dangerous hitter made the most harmless of outs a pop-up toshortstop.

The Tigers, already wearing so much defeat and resignationin their swings, watched as three baserunners drifted listlessly back to the dugout. Theydid not threaten again. They might never threaten again.

If youre throwing the ball in there for strikes, it forcesthen to swing at it eventually, Vogelsong said. I think its vital for anypitcher to establish the inner part of the plate, especially against a lineupthat hits for power.

Said Giants manager Bruce Bochy: Very impressive, with thehitters he had to face. But hes been so good at that all year, and I thinkthats what makes him a good pitcher, a quality pitcher. Hes got the abilityto keep his poise and slow thingsdown, one pitch at a time, and execute. Thats what he did in that situation.

You appreciate his whole game -- the stuff he has, sure,but also how competitive he is.

The will to compete is a quality that translates in anyleague, in any language and on any continent. And when you see it, whereverits embodied, you dont let it get away.

More Team Talk