- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy looked up at the Arizona Diamondbacks' scoreboard displaying the league pitching leaders and shook his head slightly at the difficulty he'll soon face picking his All-Star roster. For good reason. Entering the weekend, there were a dozen National League starters (with a minimum of 60 IP) with an ERA under 3.00 and two under 2.00.
What is surprising about the names on that list is that only one of them pitches for the Giants. Even more surprising is that his name isn't Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain or Jonathan Sanchez or even Madison Bumgarner. It isn't a Cy Young winner or postseason hero or someone with a no-hitter on his résumé or a $126 million contract. Instead, it's Ryan Vogelsong, who is 33 and who was told to get lost by two teams last year and began this season in the minors with his sixth club in as many seasons.
Yet since being called up in April to replace the injured Barry Zito, Vogelsong is 4-1 with a 1.93 ERA.
"Any time a starter goes down and you have a guy come up and throw the way he has, it's a shot in the arm," Bochy said. "He hasn't just thrown well; he's thrown as well as anybody in baseball. That's how good he's been."
When Vogelsong won his first game in April, it marked his first victory as a starter in more than 2,412 days. At least, it marked his first major league victory in that span. He had many victories elsewhere, while pitching everywhere from Japan to Venezuela, as well as several more familiar minor league cities. It wasn't the typical path to major league success, but as Vogelsong says, "It got me back to where I want to be."
This is where Vogelsong wanted to be way back when the Giants originally drafted him in the fifth round of the 1998 draft. He never won a game for them, though, before being traded to the Pirates in the 2001 deal that brought Jason Schmidt to San Francisco. He went 10-19 for Pittsburgh and underwent Tommy John surgery before becoming a minor league free agent after the 2006 season. He signed with Japan's Hanshin Tigers within days, pitching in Koshien Stadium, which is perhaps best known for holding the semi-annual high school baseball tournament that is the equivalent of our NCAA basketball tournament.
"It's bigger than professional baseball," Vogelsong said. "Some guys who are heroes in the high school tournament don't go on to do anything in baseball, but they're still revered people for what they did in the high school tournament. There were guys I would face and they would be cheering for a guy hitting .120 and I would be like, 'What's going on?' And it would be because he was a high school superstar."
Pitching in Japan's Field of Dreams was an appropriate spot for Vogelsong as he worked on recapturing his dream. But that dream didn't come quickly. After two years with Hanshin, he pitched the 2009 season with the team merged from the old Orix BlueWave and Kintetsu Buffaloes teams. Because the team was a merger, it had two different home stadiums -- one in Osaka and the other in Kobe. Occasionally they would play one night in Osaka and the next in Kobe.
The majors must have seemed a long way away.
"Overall, it made me a better person," Vogelsong said of his career in Japan. "It's tough being away from family and friends nine months at a time. Being in a foreign country and in another culture, you have no choice but to grow as a person. Being in a different place and dealing with the everyday things you're not used to dealing with here makes you a better person all the way around."
Vogelsong returned to America last year, going 2-5, 4.91 for Philadelphia's Triple-A team (Lehigh Valley) before the Phillies released him in mid-July. He signed with the Angels after that and went 1-3, 4.66 before Anaheim told him his services were no longer required there, either.
Overall, it made me a better person. Being in a foreign country and in another culture, you have no choice but to grow as a person.
”-- Ryan Vogelsong on playing in Japan
He was 33 years old and hadn't pitched in the majors in four years. Two organizations had just told him they didn't need him. But Vogelsong says he didn't think about retiring. "It wasn't 'I know I can still do it.' There were times I didn't know if could do it. But I wasn't going to give up. I always said from day one that I'm going to play until they tell me not to show up, so I was just kind of hoping that day wasn't coming faster than I thought."
Vogelsong pitched last winter in Venezuela, where San Francisco batting coach Hensley Meulens saw him while coaching another team. Meulens remembered Vogelsong from his time in the majors, but this newer, more experienced version impressed him. "I'm not a scout, but I've been around baseball and I can tell when someone is pitching different than they used to," Meulens said. "He's matured and learned how to pitch and learned how to get guys out. He's worked hard and figured it out."
Meulens and Giants minor league instructor Guillermo Rodriguez (who caught for Vogelsong's Venezuela team) told the San Francisco front office that Vogelsong was worth a look. "I said he was pitching great and that he would probably be an emergency guy," Meulens said. "We can use him at Triple-A and if something happens here we can bring him up and he can hold his own. And sure enough "
Vogelsong gave up two runs in 5 2/3 innings his first start and five runs in four innings his next, but he's been superb since, throwing eight consecutive quality starts without allowing more than two runs in any of them.
"When I watch him now, the reason you have to believe is he knows what he's doing," Bochy said. "He's got good stuff and he's smart. He's got that savvy you like in a pitcher, and he also has four pitches he can command. If you have two average pitches you have command of, you'll probably have success up here. Well, he's got four.
"I think he's evolved into a real good pitcher. You look at Cain or Lincecum -- those guys are more complete pitchers than they were when they were younger. And I think the road Ryan has gone down he's become a smarter pitcher."
Said Vogelsong: "It's basically the trials and tribulations of a career, and things have finally started to click. Japan was just one of the steps in the process of getting better. It wasn't just Japan; it was everything."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Follow Jim Caple on Twitter: @jimcaple
After a five-year journey that took him from the surgeon's table to foreign lands to the minor leagues, Ryan Vogelsong is back in the majors -- and pitching better than ever for the team that drafted him in 1998.