San Francisco Giants

At crucial point of Giants’ season, Madison Bumgarner is in one of his best stretches

San Francisco Giants’ Madison Bumgarner (40) hits a home run off Washington’s Casey Janssen in the seventh inning on Sunday, Aug. 16, 2015, in San Francisco.
San Francisco Giants’ Madison Bumgarner (40) hits a home run off Washington’s Casey Janssen in the seventh inning on Sunday, Aug. 16, 2015, in San Francisco. AP

Madison Bumgarner’s 106th, 107th and 108th pitches Sunday went like this:

▪ 92-mph fastball swung at and missed by the Nationals’ Bryce Harper

▪ 92-mph fastball swung at and missed by Harper

▪ 93-mph fastball taken for strike three by Harper

Yes, that was Bumgarner striking out the Washington star on three consecutive fastballs in the ninth inning of the Giants’ 5-0 win Sunday. It was a tidy metaphor for how the Giants left-hander is trending right now: With the season in its so-called “dog days,” Bumgarner looks as strong as ever.

Sunday’s win was his second consecutive complete game. In three August starts, he is 3-0 and has allowed two runs in 252/3 innings.

It was an unusually warm afternoon at AT&T Park – 85 degrees at first pitch, the hottest for a Giants home game since Aug. 25, 2010, when it was 86. But Bumgarner hit 93 mph on his 112th and final pitch, even after putting in some extra work running the bases on his home run and RBI double.

Bumgarner’s all-around day is detailed in the game story, along with his matching a feat no San Francisco Giants pitcher had since Juan Marichal, who was in the stands Sunday. The more encouraging aspect for the Giants, though, might be encapsulated in that Harper at-bat. Some wondered whether Bumgarner could really come back unaffected from his workload last season. Yet in mid-August, he’s having one of his best stretches of the season.

“That’s an impressive outing with how hot it was,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “He’s so strong and bounces back so well. He knows I’m looking at him after the eighth inning, but he goes, ‘Hey, I couldn’t feel better.’

“That game was right up there with some of the really good ones he’s thrown. And he’s thrown a lot of them.”

The last time Bumgarner faced the Nationals was not one of those good ones. They jumped him for three first-inning runs, including a two-run homer by Harper, and six runs overall in five innings on July 4. Bumgarner admitted that made Sunday’s outing a little sweeter.

“They got me pretty good last time,” he said. “So to be able to come back and throw a pretty good game against them was good for me.”

Bumgarner said he’s felt “pretty good” in his last two outings, in which he has totaled 26 strikeouts and allowed eight hits in 18 innings. He also realizes it’s coming at a good time for the Giants, who bookended their six-game homestand with wins behind Bumgarner and won five of six overall from the Houston Astros and Nationals.

The four-game sweep of the Nationals – the Giants’ first at home since May 28-30, 1971, against the franchise (then the Montreal Expos) – lifted them 11 games over .500, equaling their high-water mark for the season. They kept pace with the Dodgers, who have won three straight and still lead the National League West by 21/2 games.

Now the Giants hit the road for a difficult seven-game trip to St. Louis and Pittsburgh, the teams with the two best records in the N.L.

“It could make or break the season, this point in the schedule, the way things are going right now,” Bumgarner said. “So to play the way we are, that says a lot about the team that we are.”

Catcher Buster Posey was asked how Bumgarner has raised his game over his past few starts and said: “I think the command of the fastball’s just been as good as it has been all year, both sides of the plate, elevating when he wants to. I think that’s the main thing you can point to. He’s already tough because he’s got weird angles and obviously has great stuff. But when he can control the fastball like he has, he’s going to be tough.”

Once again, the Harper at-bat in the ninth Sunday was an illustration. Bumgarner went ahead 0-2 by throwing two high fastballs that Harper swung through. In two previous at-bats, Harper struck out swinging at sliders diving away from him. This time, though, Bumgarner came back with a fastball slightly elevated but still in the strike zone. Harper couldn’t get off a swing.

What Bumgarner did with his bat Sunday, including hitting his 10th career home run, may have generated the most buzz from an announced crowd of 41,904 on a toasty day. But the Giants had to be warmed by the idea that Bumgarner, well on the way to his fifth consecutive 200-inning season, is looking as strong as ever on the mound.

▪ Bochy said this was an important homestand for the Giants, coming off a four-game sweep in Chicago and facing some good pitching from the Astros and Nationals. In this series especially, the offense responded.

The Giants faced Nationals starters Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross, who looked every bit as electric as Bumgarner for the first three innings Sunday. They scored 18 runs against those starters in 152/3 innings, knocking all but one out before he could finish the fifth.

“Good job of us bouncing back,” Bochy said. “That’s not easy to do, to get a four-game sweep, especially against a team like that, the pitching they have. I said we had to play our best ball, and we did it – pitched great, hitters did a great job, defensively we played well. Just a great homestand.”

The offense came from more likely sources Sunday. Hunter Pence had a two-run home run, Brandon Belt an RBI double and, yes, Bumgarner. But Kelby Tomlinson and Gregor Blanco scored runs as the Giants’ fill-ins for their injured regulars have continued to produce. Blanco was on base three more times out of the leadoff spot Sunday. For this series, he reached 11 times, going 8 for 15 with three walks and eight runs scored.

It doesn’t get any easier. The Giants now face the two teams with the best ERAs in the majors in the Cardinals (2.60) and the Pirates (3.19).

“It’s been a good four-game stretch, because we’ve faced some really good power arms,” Posey said. “And to be able to get to them the way we have is a boost in the confidence. Hopefully we can keep it going. We’ve got a tough series coming up.”

▪ Bumgarner recorded more than half his outs Sunday by himself (via strikeout), but the Giants played some good defense as well. Justin Maxwell made a diving catch of Yunel Escobar’s line drive to left field in the second inning. Bumgarner snagged a line drive back up the middle by Ian Desmond.

The game’s best play, though, belonged to shortstop Brandon Crawford and helped preserve Bumgarner’s shutout. With two outs and Desmond on second in the fifth inning, Wilson Ramos hit a chopper into the hole, where Crawford backhanded it on the run and made a throw across his body to first base without breaking stride. The throw was on a line to Belt and beat Ramos by a step.

“There’s not many shortstops that can make that play,” Bochy said. “He’s really far over on the pull side there. Probably had the right runner going to help out, but a very athletic play, and he put the throw on the money.”

▪ If you missed it before the game, Bochy talked a little about facing the Cardinals in the three-game series and about Angel Pagan and Joe Panik heading to Arizona to continue their injury rehabilitation. There’s still no decision on whether Matt Cain will make his scheduled start Wednesday – the Giants are still listing their starter as TBA.

Also, from Sunday’s paper, a story on Kosuke Inaji, and how he came to be the translator for Japanese outfielder Nori Aoki. Inaji was born in Japan, but grew up in California and studied biotechnology at UC Davis before getting a job at Campbell’s – as in Soup. Now he has a locker in the Giants’ clubhouse. Go figure.

The pitching probables in St. Louis:

Monday: RHP Chris Heston (11-7, 3.38) vs. RHP Michael Wacha (14-4, 2.93)

Tuesday: RHP Mike Leake (9-6, 3.52) vs. RHP Lance Lynn (9-7, 2.95)

Wednesday: TBA vs. LHP Jaime Garcia (5-4, 1.57)

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