SAN FRANCISCO – There are no lab diagnostics for champion blood, as Bruce Bochy calls it. There are no telltale genetic markers. A cell count reveals nothing.
The Giants still have it, though. Their veins run thick with it. There is no better culture test than a best-of-5 series against the NL’s winningest team, and the Giants offered clear and compelling results Tuesday night with a clinching, 3-2 victory in Game 4 over the Washington Nationals at AT&T Park.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Giants finish off Nationals, advance to NLCS]
Next up, for the third time in 13 years, and the fourth time in 28: the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS.
“Imagine that!” special assistant Will Clark said, his high voice heavy with Louisiana sarcasm. “Who would’ve thought?”
It is the Cardinals’ fourth consecutive trip to play for the pennant. It is the Giants’ third NLCS in five years. For the fifth year in a row, it’ll be either the Cards or Giants representing the Senior Circuit in the World Series.
The Nationals might have led the league in victories and the Dodgers in dollars, but you don’t need a loupe to identify the jewel franchises in NL now.
The Giants did not use a glittering show to clear this latest hurdle, though. In the end, it didn’t matter that they scored their runs Tuesday night on a bases-loaded walk, an RBI ground out and a wild pitch. Or that their lineup needed 10 extra chances to score the winning run in the 18th inning of Game 2 on Saturday in Washington. Or that their pitching, statistically – a 3.74 rotation ERA, which ranked just 10th out of 15 NL clubs -- did not measure up to the stout staff that led them to World Series titles in 2010 and 2012.
They still have Bochy and Dave Righetti and Mark Gardner, and they have Buster Posey putting down the signs, and they have some of the best advance scouting in the business and they have a GM who understands that when it comes to October baseball, the quantitative stuff goes through the shredder.
“They know how to win,” said Brian Sabean, his black shirt sticking to his skin as the clubhouse celebration began to dry out and the locker room turned into a mellow, Merengue dance floor.
“I can’t articulate it. The will to win and the ability to compete overrides everything. Having said that, you also have to stay in the moment, and whether it’s a tough Game 1, or 18 innings or Game 2, or putting aside the ugliness of last night, they did that.”
For the seventh playoff series in the Bochy era, they did that -- eighth time, if you count the NL wild card game at Pittsburgh, which absolutely, you should. The Giants had to play the Nationals deprived of their ace, Madison Bumgarner, until Game 3. They couldn’t pitch him twice in this series. It was the precise handicap the wild card entrant is meant to receive in the new playoff system.
The Giants lost on Bumgarner’s day. They won on the other three.
“I was hoping it wasn’t going to get to me, to be honest,” said Ryan Vogelsong, after spitting fire at the Nationals while holding them to a run on two hits in 5 2/3 innings. “But I just had the crazy feeling it was going to come down to me for Game 4, and I just had to get the job done.”
Vogelsong, 37, was 8-13 with a 4.00 ERA in the regular season. Too often, he was ordinary. In October, he is extraordinary. Armed with his best fastball in two years, he became the first pitcher in major league history to allow one run or fewer in each of his first five postseason starts. The Giants are 5-0 when he takes the mound in October, and if that doesn’t impress you, just ask Clayton Kershaw how he plans to spend the rest of his month.
“He pitches off feel and he knows what he wants to do, and I could tell in the bullpen. The fastball was coming in with a lot of life,” Posey said of Vogelsong. “I wouldn’t have guessed 95 (mph). But it’s funny what adrenaline can do for you.”
Jake Peavy lets everything spill out on the field. Vogelsong’s intensity is different. “Boiling under the skin,” was how rookie Joe Panik described it.
Vogelsong is so intense that teammates do not talk to him on his day to pitch. They steer clear of him in the dugout as if he carries a persistent no-hit bid. Eye contact comes with risks.
So when Pablo Sandoval popped up with the bases loaded in the fifth inning, wasting a chance to put away a 2-1 game, he was shocked at who met him as he trudged down the bullpen stairs. It was Vogelsong, and his mouth was moving.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Gregor Blanco said.
“I leave him alone, always,” Sandoval said. “I don’t talk to him when he pitches. But he came to me and he told me one thing: ‘You’ll get an opportunity to win this game.’ I believed him.”
“I just told him, 'You’ll get another chance,’” Vogelsong said. “He’s a big, big piece of this team. I just had this weird feeling he’d get another opportunity. I felt like he needed to hear it. I know he was disappointed, popping up in that spot. I honestly just had to tell him, 'Hey, I have a vision here.’”
So maybe the vision wasn’t Sandoval standing at the plate and looking at a pitch in the dirt from right-hander Aaron Barrett, which skipped to the screen and scored Panik with the go-ahead run in the seventh.
“A lot of things aren’t supposed to happen,” Vogelsong said. “That’s all I can say on that.”
The Nationals did not execute well enough to win an elimination game, but the Giants did more than stumble their way to those three runs. Even though pitcher Gio Gonzalez’s fielding error helped to set up a two-run second inning, the Giants still needed a rookie, Panik, to put an 0-2 pitch into play to push a run across. They needed Hunter Pence to foul off a two-strike pitch and work a seven-pitch walk that loaded the bases in the seventh.
Asked about those rallies, Pence changed the subject.
“We found a way to score but at the same time, the story is the pitching and the defense,” he said. “That’s the foundation of this club and that’s what sustains us.”
Pence was a part of that, too. Giants fans will never look at the No.4 archway the same again after Pence raced to the arcade in the sixth, leapt at the last instant, stuck his glove against the pad, caught Jayson Werth’s deep drive and crashed against the chain-link fence.
It was Vogelsong’s last batter. He walked off the mound holding a fist aloft.
“Well, I can’t tell you what I said because you’d have to bleep out half of it, but that’s what he’s supposed to do,” Vogelsong said. “He makes a great catch every time I’m pitching in the postseason. I knew it had to show up at some point, and it did. And thank goodness it did, because that’s probably a triple if he doesn’t catch that ball.”
So ended a four-game performance for the rotation in which Giants starters combined for a 1.04 ERA. It’s even lower (0.89) if you toss in Yusmeiro Petit’s six shutout innings of relief in Game 2, and again, absolutely, you should.
Short of a Neoprene suit and a 10-minute head start, there was no way for Pence to catch Bryce Harper’s drive in the seventh. He hit his drive off Hunter Strickland a bit further, as he’s shown a tendency to do in this series. Harper stood and watched his tying water shot stay fair in the seventh inning.
It was Harper’s third home run in the series – two more than the Giants hit as a team, although they made theirs count. It was Brandon Belt’s tiebreaking shot in the 18th inning of Game 2.
Strickland saw his way through the inning, and after the wild pitch put them right back in front, a resurgent Sergio Romo became the last of many Giants pitchers to thrust a lance through the heart of Washington’s order. Santiago Casilla pitched around Harper before getting Wilson Ramos to ground to second base to clinch it.
The Giants won every game in the NLDS by one run – just as they did against Atlanta to escape the best-of-5 round four years ago.
“It definitely fits the kind of game we were able to play today where we’re tested and pushed and kind of see who wants it a little bit more,” Romo said. “No knock on them, but maybe we wanted it just a little bit more tonight."
They wanted to avoid a return trip to Washington, where a rested Jordan Zimmermann awaited them. Stephen Strasburg did too, in theory, although the Nats might regret passing up chances to use him as a tourniquet Tuesday night. Strasburg is more a cashmere scarf than all-purpose gauze, anyway.
The Giants? They do not have players who come with special instructions.
“I told them earlier, there’s nobody’s will that’s stronger than theirs or a desire that’s deeper,” Bochy said. “ They were determined not to get back on the plane and go to Washington. They couldn’t quite put the game away, but they kept fighting. And when (Washington) tied the game, we put the pressure right back on them.
“It’s all about them. It’s fun to see a group of guys that come together and are so unselfish and play with so much grit.”
Bochy calls it champion blood. Tim Hudson, who is through to the LCS for the first time in seven tries, calls it something else.
“Huddy said it best,” yelled Vogelsong, amid a raucous clubhouse as teammates gathered around and Pence glowed with delight. “Are we a team with some big balls?”
“YES! YES! YES!” the rest shouted back, shaking and spilling their success.