Matt Cain saw this coming. Not the specifics, maybe – the 0.43 ERA in the World Series, lowest since Sandy Koufax in 1965; the 52 2/3 innings in these playoffs, the most ever by a pitcher in a single postseason; the 15-out save in Game 7 on Wednesday that cemented Madison Bumgarner’s among the greatest Octobers ever compiled by a major-league pitcher.
But the physical grit and determination that Bumgarner displayed on the way – yeah, Cain knew about that. Saw it years ago, when the then 19-year-old kid, fresh out of Hickory, N.C., came up to big-league camp for a day in spring training to face some major-league hitters. One of those hitters was Manny Ramirez, and as Cain recalled Wednesday night, Bumgarner came up to him that day seeking advice on how to pitch Ramirez.
“I said, ‘Hey, let’s go inside to this guy, throw hard inside. He likes to get extended,’” Cain said, figuring that would be easier said than done for the teenaged left-hander against the right-handed slugger. “And the guy goes out there and throws three, four pitches inside, gets him.
“For a 19-year-old not to be intimidated by a guy that’s a 20-year veteran – that’s impressive.”
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And so it was that Cain watched with little surprise Wednesday night as Bumgarner, now 25 and one of the best pitchers in baseball, came in from the bullpen in the fifth inning in Game 7 of the World Series and, for the next five innings, retired hitter after hitter of the Kansas City Royals – three days removed from hurling 117 pitches in a four-hit shutout against that same Royals team – until at 10:21 p.m. local time the Series ended just as it had begun, with Bumgarner turning his back slightly to the plate, swinging his left arm out wide behind him and delivering a pitch.
Salvador Perez popped it up, Pablo Sandoval caught it near the Giants’ dugout, and for the third time in five seasons, the Giants were World Series champions. It was the 68th pitch delivered by Bumgarner on the night, and ended the 21st inning he pitched in the Series. He allowed one run in those 21 innings, issued one walk, struck out 17, earned two wins and, when the Giants had to protect a one-run lead in Game 7, recorded the final 15 outs to earn his first major-league save.
“Sometimes,” Cain said, “you wonder if he’s got a pulse.”
Amid the blaring music and heavy air inside a victorious visiting clubhouse in Kansas City on Wednesday night, Bumgarner’s teammates and coaches struggled to put into words what they had just witnessed from the 25-year-old.
Bumgarner pitched seven innings in Game 1, threw a complete-game shutout in Game 5, then came back three days later to pitch five more scoreless innings in his first relief outing since Game 6 of the 2010 National League Championship Series. It lowered his career World Series ERA to 0.25 – one earned run in 36 innings.
Beginning with his complete-game shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the wild-card game, the left-hander threw a total of 52 2/3 innings this postseason, surpassing Curt Schilling’s previous record of 48 1/3 for a single postseason. He pitched nearly one-third of the 160 total innings the Giants’ staff threw in October. He allowed six earned runs in those innings – a 1.03 ERA – the third-lowest by any pitcher with at least 30 innings in one postseason.
“I don’t even know if it’s all that possible to do what he just did,” reliever Jeremy Affeldt said. “That’s a Hall of Fame performance in my opinion. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll ever see that again.”
Nor did catcher Buster Posey, a player not prone to overstatement, who said that he had begun thinking about the historic nature of Bumgarner’s postseason – while Game 7 was still going.
“Yes,” Posey said. “Yes, definitely. I think you’re going to be hard-pressed to ever find a postseason performance like this again. If you do, it’s going to be few and far between.”
Pitching coach Dave Righetti said manager Bruce Bochy asked him before the game how many pitches he thought Bumgarner might be able to throw in a relief outing. Righetti’s answer was “50 to 70.” Bumgarner finished at 68, 50 of which were strikes.
“He didn’t just come out there trying to blow smoke. He came in to pitch,” Righetti said. “A lot of starters that have ever tried this, a lot of them overthrow because they think they’re relievers now. Whatever they’ve got, they’re going to empty the tank. He took his time, same rhythm, and threw the same pitches.”
That included Bumgarner’s low-90s fastball and his signature cutter, his sweeping slider and the big, slow breaking ball that he commanded with precision.
“I don’t know how in the hell he does that,” Righetti said. “With all the adrenaline, you’d figure he’d be over-amped to throw those things, leaving them up in the zone.”
The first batter Bumgarner faced, Omar Infante, lined a single into right field. The next 14 went down in order. With the Giants batting in the top of the ninth inning, their bullpen, where nobody had stirred since Bumgarner jogged in from the area behind the right-field fence, remained quiet.
“I just looked at him after the eighth,” Righetti said. “He looked at me. I said, ‘You’re in. You’re starting the inning.’”
Bumgarner retired the first two hitters before Alex Gordon lined what looked like a single to left-center field. Only Gregor Blanco let it bounce by him to the wall, and while Juan Perez corralled it and hurried a throw into the infield, Gordon sped into third base, holding there to represent the tying run.
That brought up Perez, the only hitter ever to drive in a run against Bumgarner in the Series, with a home run late in Game 1. He still holds that distinction. Perez popped a ball high in the Kansas City night, and minutes later Bumgarner was hoisting the Series Most Valuable Player trophy.
Royals manager Ned Yost was asked afterward whether there had been a “helpless” feeling when Bumgarner came in from the bullpen with a lead in the fifth.
“Yeah, it was hopeless,” Yost said. “But you still have that hope in the back of your mind like in the ninth inning there. You get something going, something happens, you catch a break, and you find a way to dunk one out there or a sac fly with one out, and get the game tied and then just get them out somehow.
“But him going five innings was, you know, I’m sure he’s going to be the MVP.”
Yost was informed that honor had already been bestowed.
“Man,” Yost said, “that’s a no-brainer.”
It was a more stressful proposition for Bochy to keep sending Bumgarner out inning after inning, knowing the workload the Giants had already asked of him. Bumgarner finished 2014 having thrown 270 innings between the regular and postseason. Bochy before the game had emphasized to reporters that the left-hander is “not a toy.” But as Game 7 wore on, Bochy said, Bumgarner “kept saying, ‘Hey, I’m good to go. My arm feels great.’”
In the immediate wake of the win, as the Giants formed a shifting mass of delirium on the field, Bochy sought out his young ace. “I really can’t remember too much about what I said, except I love him and what a warrior he is,” Bochy said. “I just told him that I just can’t believe what he accomplished through all this. He’s such a humble guy, and we rode him pretty good.”
Throughout, Bumgarner maintained that he was physically holding up fine. He shrugged at the idea of pitch counts and said he felt he could throw “maybe 200” if needed in Game 7. When it was over, though, the task completed and the title secured, he let his guard down.
“You know what? I can’t lie to you anymore,” Bumgarner said. “I’m a little tired now.”
He’ll have months to rest, to recover, while everybody else reflects on the way he wrote himself into October lore this postseason. Attempting to place it into context, Giants president and CEO Larry Baer said late Wednesday night, “To me, it’s historic.”
“It’s historic. We have a great game, 135 years of Giants baseball, and I can’t imagine anybody performing at a higher level in this organization.
“We’re talking about Willie Mays, we’re talking about Willie McCovey and all the great Giants through history. And Madison’s right in the conversation with everybody for this stretch.”
Nominally, maybe. But when it comes to some of the lasting numbers from this postseason – the workload, the 0.25 lifetime World Series ERA, the no-walk, eight-strikeout shutout in Game 5 – the conversation is much shorter. There, Madison Bumgarner, who once showed that even at 19 years old he would not back down, stands alone.
“I don’t think anybody thought he would do it,” fellow starter Ryan Vogelsong said. “But I think he set the blueprint. So you might see it again. But as excellent as that? Probably not.”