It’s been a while since a pinkie has caused as much consternation as the one on Madison Bumgarner’s left hand.
The San Francisco Giants ace broke the little finger on his pitching hand when fielding a comebacker in spring training. So his start Saturday night in Sacramento for the River Cats was a big deal for area baseball fans, who packed Raley Field for the first sellout (14,014) of the season, which is roughly a third of the way complete.
“(I) appreciate that,” Bumgarner said of the sellout. “It’s fun to come play here. I’d rather not and I think they understand that."
The four-time All-Star and 2014 World Series MVP was on the 60-day disabled list and is now eligible to be activated, which may happen as early as late next week after an expected start at Single-A San Jose.
“(The pinkie) feels good. All the baseball stuff … throwing and hitting, all that stuff I don’t notice it at all," Bumgarner said. “It feels completely normal at this point.
The pinkie didn’t appear to be hurting the 6-foot-5 Bumgarner, certainly not during batting practice where the sweet-swinging southpaw pounded seven home runs over the left-field fence. Bumgarner bats right-handed, which puts a lot of strain on his left pinkie as it presses against the knob at the bottom of the bat during a swing.
Bumgarner threw a first-pitch strike to the Albuquerque Isotopes' Garrett Hampson at 91 mph and struck Hampson out on a fastball five pitches later. He got Rameil Tapia looking at a wicked curve ball for the second out and struck out the side when Josh Fuentes fanned on another fastball away. Bumgarner walked off the mound to a standing ovation.
“If I was to break any finger I would want to break a pinkie because it has the least to do with the way you grip the ball,” said River Cats reliever Manny Parra, who ended his rookie season with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008 when he broke the thumb on his pitching hand while bunting. “Ligament damage is more difficult to come back from than a broken bone, most of the time. What you want to make sure of is that you don’t change anything. Hopefully he’s able to do that.”
Bumgarner threw 47 pitches, 31 for strikes, and did not allow a hit. He struck out eight and walked one. He left the game to a thunderous ovation after striking out the first two batters he faced in the fourth inning. He had a 1-0 lead when he left.
“My command was good, my breaking balls were doing pretty good so that was kind of what I was looking for – everything heading in the right direction," he said. "Arm strength felt good throughout the start, so I’m pretty happy with it.”
Bumgarner’s lone plate appearance in the third inning resulted in a sharp single to right field on the first pitch he faced from Isotopes starter Antonio Senzatela.
Parra said there was a noticeable buzz around the ballpark Saturday as Bumgarner arrived, dressed and took the field for batting practice.
“For the guys who know him personally it’s another teammate, and for the guys who don’t it’s a great opportunity to see what a guy of his stature does in order to prepare himself,” said Parra, who grew up in Citrus Heights and played baseball for Casa Roble High and American River College. “When you get to that level in the major leagues, and have the credentials that he has, it’s pretty exciting and it gives a little bit more motivation for the young guys to get there.”
Ann Patterson drove six hours from Humboldt County’s McKinleyville just to see her second-favorite Giants player (Brandon Crawford has a special place in her heart).
“This is my very first game. I come every Memorial Day to work the music festival with my best friend who lives here but it’s been canceled,” said Patterson, who was wearing a Bumgarner T-shirt that she’s owned for years. “So when I heard MadBum was pitching, I said we’re going to a River Cats game.”
Patterson was not deterred by the strict pitch count imposed on Bumgarner.
“Even 20 pitches would be fine,” she said before the game. “I’ll use my camera to zoom in on him.”
Rose Holland, the River Cats’ merchandise manager, was busy as soon as the turnstiles started clicking and fans streamed through the store eager to purchase anything Bumgarner related.
“(The Bumgarner) announcement happened so fast that we didn’t have a chance to order a lot of stuff,” Holland said. “I did have some rally towels left over from last year when he was here, so we pulled those out and those are selling well. We can put names and numbers on jerseys and we have a special going on tonight to put his name on anything.”
Pete Aguilar and his family already had the barbecue flames flickering and the ice chest lid wide open a full three hours before Bumgarner threw his first pitch at 7:11 p.m. The lifelong Giants fan and Elk Grove resident said he purchased tickets as soon as he heard Bumgarner was going to get the rehab start.
He said he attends about five or six games a year but is considering purchasing season tickets next year.
“To me, Bumgarner is the best pitcher I’ve ever seen, just how dominant he’s been in the World Series,” Aguilar said. “But before tonight I’ve only seen him on TV. This is special – even if he throws only 45 pitches.”