Vogelsong emerging as latest Giants pitching star

Published May. 24, 2011 12:40 a.m. EDT

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.''