The Closer

One of the glories of baseball is that at any moment in October some unsung roster scrap can be possessed by fate and take over a series. The Giants’ 2010 and 2012 playoff runs benefited from such unpredictable surges. Aubrey Huff, Cody Ross and Marco Scutaro shone most brightly in the twilight of previous runs then faded away; Barry Zito packed the value of his entire seven year contract into a couple of clutch October games.

In 2014 the entire Royals roster seemed possessed by gifts from the Gods of the Unknown Underdog. Fired up from their beyond-cinematic win against the A’s in the wild card, they didn’t just beat, but swept, the heavily favored Tigers and Orioles. Even in the World Series, in games without Bumgarner, they were up 3-2.

Despite the high quality of the Giants bullpen it felt inevitable that the near unstoppable force of the Royals would meet the immovable object of Bumgarner one last time. Even if it was on two days of rest. Bumgarner had dismissed the Royals in both Game 1 and Game 5, allowing only one run in sixteen innings – a meaningless home run to Salvador Perez while the Giants were up 7-0 in the seventh inning of Game 1.  There had been nervous chatter in San Francisco that Bumgarner had not been chosen to pitch on short rest for Game 4. Fans reckoned this meant he was lost to a Game 7 role.

The rest of the Giants’ starting rotation had aged or injured itself into oblivion. Neither of the rotation anchors of yesteryear, Tim Linecum nor Matt Cain would wind up pitching an inning. Tim Hudson had a good first half and Jake Peavy picked up where he left off mid-season; neither sparkled in the playoffs. (Why the clutch performances of Yusmerio Petit-46 batters consecutively retired, six scoreless innings against the Nationals in the DS-did not elevate him to a starter’s role is another question.)

Roger Angell’s recap of Game 6 was among those with the premonition that Bumgarner would appear in Game 7:

Giants’ Tim Hudson and the Royals’ Jeremy Guthrie—are veterans who know that they will be gone in an instant, with plenty of time ahead for duck-hunting or sleeping in or a second-grade play, at the first signs of a wobble…San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy will have his ace, Madison Bumgarner, in the bullpen and available for an early E.M.S. call. Bumgarner threw that numbing four-hit, complete-game shutout on Sunday, but even on short rest he’s probably the best pitcher in North America just now.

Tom Verducci said it in the Fox broadcast intro as well: “Bruce Bochy, this decision with Madison Bumgarner in the bullpen the lowest career E.R.A. in World Series history. When does he go to him, and for how long?”

The starting pitchers Jeremy Guthrie and Tim Hudson had faced each other the previous week, the Royals winning 3-2 in San Francisco. The home team Royals had won the last nine Game Sevens. Hudson was the oldest starting WS pitcher at 37 years 107 days.

Bottom of 2nd it was Lincecum and Affeldt getting ready when Mousstakas was coming to bat. Lincecum who is one of the better embodiments of the rougher side of baseball that glory is fleeting. Barely on the playoff roster after two Cy Youngs, and about to be passed over for a pitcher on two days’ rest.

The teams traded sets of runs in the third inning.  A remarkable play by Joe Panik leads to a double play and the Giants get out with minimal damage. (Screen captures are all from MLB.TV)

Panik Game7dive

In the fourth after Pablo and Pence are on first and second, only Pablo advances to third on Belt’s sacrifice fly to left. Morse’s subsequent single to right probably would have brought Pence home against the weak arm of Aoki. As it was it was the last run the Giants’ often underwhelming but sufficient offense would score. The moment of truth arrives, even if one only thinks it is for a few moments, and Bumgarner comes in to pitch the fifth. Bumgarner gives up a single to the first batter, ninth in the lineup, the humble Omar Infante. A dismal short fly ball, but it is as good as a shot up the middle. Bumgarner appears unfazed.

Screenshot 2015-02-07 12.52.34

Still, it is the first batter to a left handed pitcher and now Bumgarner is going to be looking at him prior to the pitches. In this intense moment, the possibilities for distraction seem high. Nevertheless, Royal manager Ned Yost’s smallball kicks into full effect when Alcides Escobar, who had been hot all postseason, lays down a bunt to advance the runner.  Nori Aoki who is 0-for-16 against Bumgarner, and 1-for-12 in the World Series.

The black hole offensively that was left field all year for the Giants has Juan Perez playing in it. An upgrade defensively from Travis Ishikawa, but a worse option than Gregor Blanco, who has been in center since Angel Pagan’s injury. It’s not the world’s greatest catch but it likely doesn’t happen with Ishikawa in, or the correct placement of Perez in the first place. If that ball gets beyond Perez, Infante scores, and the speedy Aoki is at no less than second base. Is Bumgarner, who had been behind each batter in the inning, still in the game after that? If he is is he the same pitcher?

Screenshot 2015-02-07 12.58.52

Perez's Catch on Aoki

Ishikawa had made an error the previous night and Joe Buck cites Bochy’s personnel selection “just paid off.” It’s possible that hit would have been a Triple; run scores, tie game and a runner on third with one out and clean up, fly ball hitter Lorenzo Cain at bat.

Cain chases several balls up out of the zone for a strike out to close out the inning, presaging many a strike out to come with pitches just off the strike zone, enlarged in the batters’ minds by the excitable moment.

All Star game was won by the AL. That turns out to be a Carthaginian victory to get home field advantage in the World Series: the pitchers weren’t in the lineup this game. The pitchers’ spot would have been up in the top of the seventh (assuming no double switches.) Bumgarner was among the better hitters in the game but would you leave him to bat only up one run?

Bumgarner is in their heads, with Butler and Cain among others audibly swearing after meek pop ups on pitches they know they shouldn’t have swung at. Bumgarner has not just climbed the ladder, he has confidently stood perched on top of it, inning after inning.

Buck announces that Casilla had not allowed a run in 19 straight post-season games but going into the ninth it’s Bumgarner despite 52 pitches on his off day back on the mound.  He quickly gets two outs. Then Alex Gordon flies to center…and Gregor Blanco, perhaps best known for a diving catch to save Matt Cain’s perfect game…botches it.  He neither dives nor lays back to catch on one hop but the worst of all outcomes does neither well and it gets past him…

Blanco botches bottom of the ninth

Blanco botches bottom of the ninth

…then past Perez with the ball at the wall:

ball gets by Perez

ball gets by Perez

The batter then is Salvador Perez – the only batter to have hit a home run off of Bumgarner in the post-season. The metronome death grip of Bumgarner’s delivery doesn’t fluctuate or flub; he returns to a set of above the chest pitches knowing the moment is equally heavy on Perez.  A fly ball to Pablo Sandoval in foul territory – a trenchant moment, knowing his likely departure in the offseason after being the first NL team to match the World War II Cardinals for three World Series in five years.

Pablo's final catch

Pablo’s final catch

Angell again, in his Game Seven summary entitled “The Best“:

I don’t know what it felt like watching Mathewson pitch, but watching Bumgarner is like feeling an expertly administered epidural nip in between a couple of vertebrae and deliver bliss: it’s a gliding, almost eventless slide through the innings, with accumulating fly-ball outs and low-count K’s marking the passing scenery. It’s twilight sleep; an Ambien catnap; an evening voyage on a Watteau barge. Bumgarner is composed out there, his expression mournful, almost apologetic, even while delivering his wide-wing, slinging stuff. Sorry, guys: this is how it goes. Over soon.

“MadBum” seems just as even keel afterwards in post game interviews. A portly representative from Chevy loses his composure while trying to give him a truck, sweating profusely as the award is handed. It’s an uncomfortable rather than meme-making moment.  One that provides a study in contrasts for how even small moments under the lights are high pressure for mortals.

Like Cincinnatus withdrawing after his martial glory, after the victory parade it was back to the farm in North Carolina for the off season for the hero.

There is something discordant between Bumgarner and his team city. It magnifies the greatness. Of course Madison Bumgarner is liked, but his quiet obedience to the duty of the pitcher’s role is not loved. Lincecum irrespective of performance is one after San Francisco’s own heart. Timmy has the arm motion and hair cuts of a…rascal. Madbum is bestowed no animal nickname (Panda, Horse, Giraffe, even White Shark having been given out) to build a line of accessories around.  He doesn’t have the hero’s journey of Posey from MVP to broken leg and back to near MVP status. He just has a World Series ERA of 0.25; it’s a record you want to freeze in time and not risk again. With the Giants’ post season roster anemia and the wear and tear of 270 innings on Bumgarner maybe it won’t be risked for a while. I hope the inspiration will remain evergreen, as the murmurs of next season begin.

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