SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants didn't win their 61st game of the season on Thursday.
They won it this spring, when Hunter Strickland was sent down to Triple-A with instructions to vary his arsenal and stretch out to the point where he could pitch multiple innings for Bruce Bochy if needed. They won it this summer when Ryan Vogelsong changed his workout routine and subsequently added a little juice to his fastball. They won this game on Tuesday, when Madison Bumgarner -- seriously ticked and eager to turn the tide, according to teammates -- went the distance and guaranteed a rare day off for a worn-down bullpen.
Baseball players spend thousands of hours preparing for the snapshots that make up nine innings, and the preparation done earlier this season helped the Giants get a big 3-1 win over a Washington Nationals club that's barely hanging on in the race. When Santiago Casilla threw the final pitch of the night, the Giants were looking at a full-game swing in the West thanks to Cincinnati's thrashing of the Dodgers.
You couldn't have imagined that after the first pitch.
Vogelsong's first offering was hit over the wall in left, but he buckled down, pushed fatigue aside and got through five. He admitted later that he was "gassed" a bit by the 29-pitch first inning, but in his second start in place of Mike Leake, Vogelsong had plenty left in big moments. He threw fastballs past Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman in the third and got Anthony Rendon waving through 92 mph in the fifth. Zimmerman got three heaters and a cutter in the fifth as Vogelsong went to two strikes to his final batter -- with the tying run on first -- and then the Nationals' cleanup hitter swung through a curveball.
"I'm really excited about the way my arm feels and how I've been feeling," Vogelsong said. "The ball is coming out good. This game is hard enough to go out there and do your job really well, but it's even harder when you're not physically right."
Vogelsong said the team's training staff helped him adjust his meticulous shoulder workout routine, and he feels that's allowed him to pitch off a good fastball as the season hits the stretch run.
"I feel as good as I have at this point of the season," he said. "I think that (routine) is giving me a little more zip on the fastball."
Nobody in that bullpen has Strickland's fastball life, and the rookie right-hander took control once Vogelsong departed. Strickland pitched two innings, punching out Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond in the sixth and then mixing in a new slurvy curve more often in the seventh while setting the Nationals down on nine pitches. He threw 16 of 18 pitches for strikes and said he's ready for more extended stints, something the Giants envisioned when they optioned him this spring. Thursday's outing was Strickland's fourth of at least two innings. He has allowed just one hit and struck out 10 in those 8 1/3 innings.
"We wanted to have some options with him and make him available for a couple innings," Bochy said. "It was critical tonight. He gave us what we needed there to get to the setup guy and closer. He's really pitched well. He's more of a pitcher now than he was last year."
Strickland said the big difference is he's fully healthy, allowing him to let loose with everything he's got. He's starting to see hitters a second and third time -- Desmond will have Strickland nightmares tonight -- and said he's looking to mix it up more. It's a tool chest that often leaves teammates shaking their heads.
"Man, he was pretty awesome tonight," Vogelsong said. "You throw that hard and have the command he does and now the command of off-speed pitches -- that was fun to watch."
So was the next guy...
Sergio Romo has 12 straight scoreless outings and he struck out Zimmerman and Werth after Bryce Harper singled with one down in the eighth. Romo, like everyone coming out of the pen on this night, looked fresh. They thanked Bumgarner for that.
"The bullpen, what a great job they did," Bochy said. "It was just, overall, a very well-played game for us."
--- Gregor Blanco, the new leadoff hitter, has a .367 on-base percentage. That'll play. Blanco also gives the Giants a speed dimension they've been missing since Nori Aoki fractured his leg in June, and tonight he scored after a triple and also a stolen base.
"That leadoff hitter can set the tone," Bochy said. "He jumpstarted us that first inning. It's always good to have the leadoff hitter or No. 2 hitter find a way to get on base. Gregor has done a nice job for us. We know how good he is defensively, but he's had a good year for us offensively."
Blanco is hitting .362 in 15 games as the leadoff hitter. It's worth watching as Aoki gets closer to a return.
--- The latest on Chase Utley: Well, there's not much new. The Giants have made an offer but they're not optimistic, and that has little to do with their offer. The ball is in Utley's court, and the Giants believe the Phillies will have better options if Utley -- who has no-trade power -- demands to be an everyday player. The Cubs seem like an obvious fit, although this is all pretty fluid.
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