Thursday, October 02, 2014

Bumgarner's October masterpiece

Pirates learn the hard way Giants' lefty is a sudden-death foe you don't want to face

October 2, 2014

PITTSBURGH -- Well, just as we all expected, a dominant left-hander from the San Francisco Bay Area headed for the mound in a humongous postseason game this week and wouldn't let his team go home.
Except it wasn't Jon Lester, ladies and gentlemen. It was Madison K. Bumgarner, of that other team in the Bay Area, those San Francisco Giants. Maybe Billy Beane should have traded for him.
There would be no wild and wacky 9-8 games in Pittsburgh on Wednesday night. How could there be? Madison Bumgarner was pitching.
He ended the magical season of the Pittsburgh Pirates with an 8-0, four-hit, 10-whiff, complete-game shutout in the National League wild-card game. And now, in your all-time ranks of pitchers who have spun a shutout, with double-digit strikeouts, in a winner-take-all postseason baseball game, the list looks like this:
  • Sandy Koufax in 1965.

  • Justin Verlander in 2012.

  • Madison Bumgarner on an unforgettable Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.

How about that?
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Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsMadison Bumgarner whiffed 10 Pirates while looking like he was on cruise control.
So when Bumgarner's Giants teammates hear other people gushing about the greatness of Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright and Johnny Cueto, etc., you know exactly what they are thinking.
"This guy," Brandon Belt said of his team's ace, late on this Wednesday night, "is right there with all those guys. And he's 25 years old."
Yeah, Madison Bumgarner is 25, alright, but he's already constructed a reputation as a bona fide, shutdown, October game-changer. Wednesday night was the seventh postseason start of Bumgarner's career. He's allowed zero runs in three of them, and the Giants have won five of them. That'll work.
So there was never any doubt he was going to get the ball if their season came down to this. How long ago did Bruce Bochy decide Bumgarner was going to be the Giants' starter if they found themselves playing in this game, anyway? A week ago? A month ago? About 20 minutes into spring training?
Whatever. Doesn't matter. For weeks now, the greatness of the most underappreciated 25-year-old left-hander in baseball has hung over this game, just about from the moment it became apparent the Giants were going to be a part of it.
Three weeks ago, a scout from a rival NL contender even brought up his name, without any prompting, as he talked about the race among the Pirates, BrewersBraves and others for that other wild-card spot.
"That race," he said, "is just for the right to get beat by Madison Bumgarner in the wild-card game."
Well, how right he was. If you can't finish first, the next-best thing is to get your ace ready for nights like this. And last night, Bumgarner sure reminded us of why.
The Pirates took a different approach to this game, of course. They had a chance to save their young rocket launcher, Gerrit Cole, for this occasion. They chose instead to pitch him Sunday and try to win their division. We now know how that turned out.
And that left them with Edinson Volquez on the mound in this game, riding a streak of 10 straight starts without a loss. We now know how that turned out, too.
Volquez served up a tiebreaking, game-turning, fourth-inning grand slam to Brandon Crawford, the first postseason slam by any shortstop in baseball history. And with all due respect to what went on Tuesday in Kansas City, Missouri, this game had no chance of turning upside down once that ball came down.
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AP Photo/Don WrightBrandon Crawford and the Giants' offense created more than enough room for Bumgarner to work with.
"When that ball went over the fence, I mean, game over with Bum on the mound," Tim Hudson said. "You give Bum a 4-0 lead, and I don't give a damn. Let's go spray some champagne."
Unfortunately, they were still required by the powers that be to play another five innings before that was permissible. But that was just a formality once they got a close-up view of how Bumgarner was carving up one of the best lineups in the National League.
"He showed tonight that he can be as good as anybody," said Jake Peavy, who will start Game 1 of the National League Division Series in Washington, D.C., on Friday. "I mean, you know anything can happen. But once you get him a four-run lead and you see how he was throwing ... you feel pretty good about your chances."
And so, by the way, did Bumgarner himself. When he got through eight innings with just 101 pitches and a shutout on the board, he was so determined to get those last three outs, you "couldn't have gotten him out of that game with a tractor," Bochy deadpanned.
"Well," laughed Bumgarner, when asked how big a tractor it would have taken, "it would have had to be a big one. A real big one. At least 200 horsepower."
Bumgarner had a long time to think about what it would mean to be the man pitching on this night. So over the past few days, he said, he couldn't help but get "anxious," because he was "ready to get out there."
"But you wake up on game day, and you try to push the nerves and all that stuff aside," he said. "You wake up with a nice, calm feeling, and you just take the day real slow."
As a guy who once twirled eight spectacular shutout innings in a World Series game at 21 years old, back in 2010, he's got this drill down now. He has seen October, and it isn't as scary as it was made out to be.
He had that same calm look in his eye at 21, by the way. But if he did, he said, it was an illusion, because "my first postseason, I didn't know what I was doing."
"Really?" his catcher, Buster Posey, chuckled, after those words were relayed across the room. "He was pretty good for not knowing what he was doing."
But now that he clearly knows exactly what he's up to out there, isn't it clear to the outside world yet that he's as tough, smart and talented as any pitcher on anybody's team this month?
He is, after all, the answer to the trivia question: Who's the only pitcher not named Clayton Kershaw to win a pitcher-of-the-month award in two different months (May and August) this season?
He was also second in the NL to Kershaw in double-figure strikeout games (six), and at the plate, this guy hit as many home runs (four) as Derek Jeter -- and went into this game with the second-highest slugging percentage (.470) of anyone in the Giants' lineup.
So if there was one thing his teammates were disappointed in Wednesday night, it was that their man Madison Bumgarner didn't hit a single home run in this game.
"I was kind of looking for a home run from him tonight," Belt quipped. "Absolutely. C'mon, man. Step it up."
OK, just kidding. They'll take five more steps just like this one this October, starting in the NLDS against a Washington Nationals team that is loaded with top-of-the-rotation arms just the way the Giants once were.
These Giants, on the other hand, have now burned their ace just to get to that series, meaning, theoretically, he can pitch only once in the next round. But that's a theory Madison Bumgarner was already disputing heavily Wednesday night, even before he'd peeled off one of the most champagne-soaked uniforms in postseason history.
"Who said I'm only going to pitch once?" he asked, when that subject came up. So, memo to Bruce Bochy: If the thought of pitching your ace on short rest next week had even vaguely crossed your mind, you might want to broach that topic -- and soon.
"If they want me to? Shoot, I'd do that," Madison Bumgarner said. "Absolutely."
Hey, of course he would, because that's what aces do this time of year -- when they're not throwing four-hit, 10-whiff, complete-game shutouts in season-saving October baseball games, that is.

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