Vogelsong emerging as latest Giants pitching star

Ryan Vogelsong was still soaking in his first major league
victory in almost five years, humbled and overwhelmed after what
felt like a lifetime of trying to recreate the moment. San
Francisco Giants teammate Aubrey Huff was standing a few lockers
over and asked him what all the fuss was about.

”I’m thinking, ‘My gosh, time flies doesn’t it?”’ Huff said.
”Cause it seems like I just faced you in Pittsburgh. Vogelsong
said, ‘Well, maybe for you time flew. Not for me.”’

Certainly not.

Vogelsong’s pitching career had come close to ending countless
times. He was a promising prospect with the Pirates more than a
decade ago, he had elbow ligament replacement surgery, failed in
the big leagues, bounced out of the minors, struggled in Japan and
at age 33 figured his career might be over.

”I never thought of quitting,” he said. ”Just the thoughts
going through my head, ‘Is this it?’ I wasn’t sure I pitched well
enough to get another opportunity.”

One last chance came this season from the most unlikely team:
the defending World Series champions Giants.

Vogelsong didn’t make the club out of spring training, and how
could he? Not with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez,
Madison Bumgarner and Barry Zito filling out one of the best
rotations in baseball.

So he went back to riding buses and staying in motels for
Triple-A Fresno, not an easy decision with his wife, Nicole, and
son, Ryder, now 20 months old, left to share the burden. He was in
the stands at a game in Las Vegas charting pitches for his next
start when the manager asked for his cell phone number, informing
him that Zito was placed on the disabled list with a sprained right
foot and the Giants were looking for a replacement.

Sure enough, just before Vogelsong boarded the bus, his phone
rang. Giants Vice President Bobby Evans was on the other end.
Vogelsong was heading back to the big leagues to make a fill-in
start for San Francisco against – who else? – the Pirates.

All he has done since has been spectacular.

At a time when most pitchers are in the twilight of their
career, Vogelsong is 3-0 with a 1.93 ERA since replacing Zito –
who’s in the fifth year of his $126 million, seven-year deal and
could lose his spot in the rotation to a red-hot pitcher for the
second straight season – and the Giants have won all five times
Vogelsong has started.

”He has really done an incredible job,” Giants manager Bruce
Bochy said. ”The long road he’s been through, he’s a better
pitcher and player because of it. It’s a great story, isn’t
it?”

There was a time not so long ago when Vogelsong’s journey didn’t
seem headed for a happy ending.

Vogelsong went 6-13 with a 6.50 ERA in 2004 with the Pirates and
was moved to the bullpen the next season. By 2006, he was back in
the minors. Then Japan.

Life was a whole lot different across the Pacific, where
starting pitchers often travel ahead of the team and don’t stay for
games. There was a language barrier and a complete culture shock,
especially for a guy who makes his offseason home just outside
Philadelphia.

One night some Japanese teammates asked Vogelsong to join them
for dinner at a sushi bar. Somebody ordered fish guts for the
table. Vogelsong was stunned.

”I asked, ‘What’s that?’ They said, ‘Don’t worry about it,”’
Vogelsong recalled, chuckling. ”Their whole thing is everything is
good for you. It will give you power. That’s what they say. I
didn’t want to disrespect them and not try it. I tried it. It
wasn’t very good at all.”

Quite frankly, neither was his pitching.

After going 11-14 in three years in Japan, Vogelsong spent last
season playing for minor league teams of the Los Angeles Angels and
Philadelphia Phillies. Then he was cut from the roster again.

In what figured to be his last chance at the big leagues, he was
invited to camp with the Giants, who had first drafted him in 1998
before sending him to Pittsburgh. Suddenly, Vogelsong began to put
it all together.

Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti believes Vogelsong’s
turnaround is in large part because the right-hander learned to be
more of a pitcher than a thrower, able to locate strikes and
outthink hitters instead of simply trying to overpower them.
Vogelsong agreed and offered even further explanation.

”I just have a better understanding of myself now. I can slow
the game down and feel my body out there,” he said. ”In the past,
I could always figure out what I was doing wrong. But it was always
an inning late, a hitter late, now I’m always able to make
adjustments out there.”

Vogelsong has already collected his share of highlights this
season: getting his first major league victory since 2006 in
Pittsburgh, taking a perfect game into the sixth against Colorado
and receiving a standing ovation as he walked off the mound,
calling it ”the best experience I ever had in baseball.”

Vogelsong’s addition has helped the Giants begin Monday with a 3
1/2-game lead over the Rockies for first place in the NL West, and
there might not be anybody on San Francisco’s roster relishing the
moment more than Vogelsong.

”To go through what I went through and get back, it’s
definitely much more appreciated,” he said. ”I always realized
how great it was to be a big league baseball player. But once
you’re gone and you’re away from it, to be back in the big league
life, it’s definitely much more appreciated.”