Programming note: Giants Insider Andrew Baggarly is in Arizona. Check back for his coverage throughout spring training and watch SportsNet Central nightly at 6 and 10:30 p.m. for all the day’s MLB news.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Sometimes a candle burns brightest just before it goes out. Sometimes a lucid moment precedes death.
And sometimes, the first troubling sign for a pitcher arrives in the unlikeliest of places.
In the middle of a 10-inning, scoreless tie.
That’s where it began to go wrong for Ryan Vogelsong in 2013.
“Right before our eyes,” Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said.
Vogelsong had just returned from the World Baseball Classic, where he flashed bat-breaking stuff in two starts for Team USA. While everyone else went through their motions that spring, stretching out their arms and hitting the afternoon links, Vogelsong spent most of February gearing up for high-level international competition. He acquitted himself well. Impressively, he was able to ramp up his 37-year-old body just a couple months after pitching in the World Series. He had bat-breaking stuff against the likes of Italy and Puerto Rico.
When Vogelsong got back to Scottsdale and into a Giants uniform, he appeared no worse for wear to the untrained eye. In a six-inning start against the Milwaukee Brewers, a game that ended with 0-0 flashing on the scoreboard and both managers lauding the opposing pitcher, Vogelsong struck out seven and gave up just three hits.
But Righetti noted that the last two innings were a bit of a struggle. The stuff began to sag.
“So we shut him down, and he never really had the same stuff after that,” Righetti said. “He’s an older guy, a grinder, a guy who never really cruises. We definitely saw the effects.”
Although it wasn’t discussed much last season, Righetti said the lower back issue that forced Vogelsong to the disabled list at the start of 2012 cropped up again last year, too.
“And that just crushes a pitcher when you’re 36, 37,” Righetti said.
Vogelsong is a fighter, and you can always rely on a fighter to counterpunch. But whether it was the back issue or the workload or both, there wasn’t much behind the jabs anymore. He had a 7.19 ERA in nine starts through May 20, when the season went from bad to worse. He took a swing at a pitch that crushed the pinky on his throwing hand.
It became a lost year for Vogelsong. For the Giants, too.
Regardless of the circumstances, Vogelsong would have fought like hell to return in September. That’s his nature. But when you are pushing 38 and lacking a guaranteed contract for the following year, you don’t need to search for added motivation.
Vogelsong did not flash firm enough stuff in September to convince the Giants to pick up his $6.5 million option. But they believed in him enough to bring him back. He’ll make $5 million, plus incentives worth a few million more.
[RELATED: Ryan Vogelsong career stats]
The money is just the ante, though. The Giants have a lot more riding on Vogelsong -- and Tim Lincecum -- than a payroll line item. The crossroads they faced this offseason was how to fill three-fifths of a rotation that led them to two World Series championships. How to stay relevant in a rapidly changing NL West. How to keep the faith of sellout crowds.
Ultimately, they placed their bets with the two right-handers they knew best.
“Honestly, sometimes it’s a crapshoot,” said Righetti, who wouldn’t disclose how he advised the front office after the season. “You decide to go one way but you never really know what’s going to happen.
“In this case there were some conversations, let’s just say, between me and Tim and Vogey. I was honest with both of them, regardless of whether I wanted them back or didn’t or what I personally thought of them. In Vogey’s case, his back and his hand, and grinding back … how much energy did it take to get healthy again?
“If they’re not healthy, or you don’t think they can get through the season healthy, you really don’t put your neck out there. Maybe you do it out of loyalty to a point. But my opinion has to be (whether) they can handle the load, with Vogey getting healthy at the end of the year, talking about how he’d get prepared, and in Timmy’s case how he already started to do things differently.”
[RELATED: Tim Lincecum career stats]
Another factor weighed on Righetti’s mind after last season. He knew what wholesale turnover in the rotation could bring.
“It wasn’t pretty for us when we lost Russ (Ortiz), Livan Hernandez, (Shawn) Estes, pretty much all within a year,” Righetti said. “We had to redo all of that and we’ve been through it. It took a few years, but now, when you’ve been on the run we’ve been on the last four or five, you want to keep that strong.”
So there was Righetti on Friday morning in Scottsdale, leaning against the batting cage on a back field, watching two of his starting pitchers -- Vogelsong and Lincecum -- going back-to-back in their first live batting practice session of the spring.
“They’re here and they’re comfortable and I think it’s great for us,” Righetti said.
You cannot make too much of any throwing session in the spring, particularly in February. But Lincecum, after spending his winter throwing off a mound in a Seattle warehouse, was able to keep his fastball down in the zone -- something he usually struggles all spring to do. Vogelsong, although you’d never know it by his perfectionist’s scowl, had encouraging stuff as well.
He had good action on his cutter down and away. He got ground balls on two-seamers on the hands of right-handed hitters. And the curveball was the best of all.
“That was encouraging because I really struggled with that pitch last year,” Vogelsong said. “I just didn’t have it. It was mechanical. I couldn’t get on top because I was around everything. I couldn’t keep it on the plate. This offseason I really focused on having better direction, keep my hand in the zone longer.”
Keeping his arm up -- and his guard.
The question might not be whether Vogelsong can rediscover his stuff but how long he can maintain it. That’s a concern not only because of his age, but also because of the way he tends to grind through innings. His ability to will his way out of jams is one of his greatest strengths as a pitcher. But he’ll need to work cleaner, more efficient innings, too. He’ll need to save his punches.
Vogelsong acknowledged he got a little tired toward the end of his first live BP session.
“Which is normal,” he said. “But it’s also a little disappointing not to be able to hold my delivery together.”
No reason to panic, though. It’s February. Pitchers are supposed to be building stamina right now.
As Righetti bottom-lined it, Vogelsong and Lincecum are here. They know how much is riding on them. And they’re comfortable with it.
“Both of us are talking about it and we feel the same way,” Vogelsong said. “We’ve got a lot to prove and we’ve got a lot of people counting on us.”