As the Giants try to stop their second-half slide, they turn to one favorite son who has quietly returned to close out a legendary career.

By Andrew J. Pridgen

One of my favorite San Francisco Giants trivia questions is: Name the only Giant on the Opening Day roster in 2000 who subsequently played on the World Series-winning squads of ‘12 and ‘14?

It is, of course, 2011 All-Star Ryan Vogelsong.

Vogelsong’s player narrative would be its own original Saturday evening feature if Lifetime had a network for men. He came up with the Giants as a heralded righty in 2000 and promptly went 0-5. He was traded the next year to the Pirates along with fan favorite outfielder Armando Rios for Jason Schmidt — who went on to became the club’s ace and helped lead them to a World Series the following year. Vogelsong, meanwhile, appeared in two games for Pittsburgh and then had Tommy John surgery. He came back briefly in ‘04-05 for the Pirates posting an 8-15 record over parts of two seasons before being released.

Vogelsong continued his professional career with the Hanshin Tigers of Japan in 2007 and hit a homerun in his winning debut. Then there was a one-year stint with the Orix Buffaloes in the Nippon professional league in ‘09 before miraculously coming back to the MLB that year signing a minor league deal with the Phillies and playing AAA ball for them going 2-5 for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs before being released.

Prior to the 2011 season, Vogelsong signed a minor league contract to return to San Francisco. He started the season in AAA Fresno but was called up on April 28 to spot start for the injured Barry Zito. His first game back would be against the Pirates and he won it, 5-2. His first win in a MLB start since 2005.

Vogelsong made the 2011 All-Star team and in 2012, through four postseason starts, two of them elimination games, he went 3–0 with a 1.09 ERA en route to the Giants’ 2012 World Series title. His time as a Giant ended in 2015 with a 9-11 record and he’s currently back in Pittsburgh ostensibly in the last year of his career sitting at 3-4 with a .429 ERA.

In professional sports, not all endings are storybook. But in 2014, Vogelsong made a career-high 32 starts, helping the Giants to a third title in five seasons. This was the time all fans will remember the curtain going down upon his decade-and-a-half globe-spanning epoch.

Beyond the many noteworthy footnotes next to Vogelsong’s name, it was his persistence, professionalism — and unyielding faith in the power of the puka shell necklace/flavor savor combo — that I will always recall.

A once-in-a-generation story.

Or is it?

If there was a silver lining Sunday afternoon as the Giants rallied from ahead to blow their Major League-leading 18th save against the Cubs in front of a ravenous Wrigley home crowd, it was the extra-inning appearance of one Joe Nathan.

Nathan started out his baseball career as a five-tool shortstop in high school and at Stony Brook University. In 1995, the Giants drafted him 159th overall, and he signed the next day as an infielder. The rangy righty, whose 6’4” frame and albatross-like wingspan could deliver a short hopper to the bag at first with alarming velocity, spent one year struggling against A-ball pitching at short for the Bellingham Giants.

Following the dismal season, Nathan quit the game to go finish up school. And that’s where his story should have ended. He would go on to graduate with a degree in business management, but before making that final stop at Kinko’s printing out his resume on the nice paper, Nathan decided to return to the Giants organization and to give the game one last shot — this time as a pitcher.

In 1998, Nathan started 22 games in single-A San Jose with a 3.32 ERA and 119 strikeouts. He was promoted to AA in 1999 and pitched just two games before being brought up to San Francisco on April 20. Though he won his first decision 4-0, Nathan would spend most of the 1999 season traveling the lonely road between San Francisco and Fresno. In an injury-addled 2000 season, Nathan went 5-2 (with a pair of home runs for good measure) but struggled with his control. Nathan’s 2001 was spent in the minors. He took the opportunity to learn how to pitch in relief and he re-joined the Giants in September of 2002 throwing 32⁄3 scoreless innings from the pen.

In 2003, Nathan became one of the best long relievers in baseball. He started the season throwing 23 scoreless innings and finished with a 12-4 record allowing no runs from July 18 to Aug. 20. Overall, he was among the major league leaders that year in appearances with 78.

Then, for reasons only Brian Sabean knows, Nathan was traded that November to the Minnesota Twins in one of the worst deals since the Giants surrendered George Foster to Cincinnati for Frank Duffy and Vern Geishert. Nathan, along with pitchers Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano, was shipped to the land of 10k lakes for a one-year acrimonious rental of catcher A.J. Pierzynski and cash.

The Twins decided to convert Nathan to closer that season and for the next half decade, he was one of the game’s best. From 2004-2008, during the prime of Mariano Rivera’s career, Nathan racked up a quartet of All-Star appearances and a league-leading 246 saves. After undergoing Tommy John surgery and being sidelined for most of 2010, on Aug. 10, 2011, Nathan became the Twins all-time saves leader with his 255th in a game against the Boston Red Sox.

After the 2011 season, Nathan signed with the Texas Rangers, becoming an All-Star once more in 2012 and 2013. On April 8, 2013, he earned his 300th save. Following the 2013 season, Nathan signed with Detroit where he stayed for two seasons. He ping-ponged around to Toronto and Chicago this season rehabbing from another Tommy John Surgery before signing a minor league deal with the Giants last week.

On Saturday, he was added to the club’s major league roster and on Sunday, he pitched a perfect 11th at Wrigley before the Giants would capitulate to the Cubs the following inning.

Though the Giants’ troubled Santiago Casilla remains the closer, Nathan said he’s ready to take the ball in the ninth if needed — and, he added with a smirk, spell shortstop Brandon Crawford should the hard-working infielder need a day off.

Nathan, now 41, ranks eighth all time with 377 saves, the second-most in AL history (see: Rivera.) In that time, the Giants have been through closers Matt Herges, Dustin Hermanson, Tyler Walker, Armando Benitez, Brad Hennessey, Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo and Casilla, and pocketed three World Series rings for the effort. It is the trio of World Series appearances in his absence Nathan acknowledges when he says the Pierzynski trade ended up “working out for everyone.”

For the third time, Nathan has returned to the ballclub that drafted him 21 years ago. With nearly 13 seasons between starts as a Giant, he becomes the longest-tenured closer to return to his original team in baseball history.

…Maybe now that he’s been found, the listless Giants can kick start their September campaign and try to sneak into the postseason. One last stop before Nathan finally gets to put that business management degree to use.

Andrew J. Pridgen is the author of “Burgundy Upholstery Sky,” and has also not put his undergraduate degree to use in more than two decades.

 

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