A razor blade occasionally scrapes the edges of his face, and his Southern drawl is as thick as honey. But Madison Bumgarner, an adventurous sort by nature, could pass as the cousin of California mountain man Grizzly Adams.
The 6-foot-5 left-hander grew up in a log cabin, married his high school sweetheart, and when the baseball seasons end, he bolts for the outdoors. His sense of romance is also notably quirky – he gave his wife a 5-day old calf for a wedding present – but all that being said and written, the Giants just love the guy.
They took him out of the woods, plopped him into the middle of their gorgeous urban ballpark, and got exactly what they wanted: A major talent with a four-pitch repertoire. Two World Series rings. An ongoing rewrite of the Giants’ record book. And today, a chance to clinch this best-of-seven National League Championship Series against the St.Louis Cardinals.
While only the most enthusiastic Cardinal hater would underrate the caliber of the competition, even against a struggling Adam Wainwright, the Giants have to like their chances almost as much as they love Bumgarner. What was it Bruce Bochy said after the Gregor Blanco bunt Tuesday? Something about playing with house money? They not only have their best pitcher throwing tonight in the potential finale, they have a grizzled veteran out there – a 25-year-old, no less – who rarely seems fazed by the moment.
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Bumgarner didn’t allow a run in either of his World Series appearances, is the youngest Giants pitcher to win a postseason game and second-youngest in Major League Baseball to earn a playoff victory. More recently, he spun a four-hit gem in the wild-card matchup in Pittsburgh and atoned for the throwing blunder that cost the Giants Game 3 of the N.L. Division Series with a series-opening NLCS victory in St.Louis.
“Without question he’s better,” Bochy said Wednesday before his club’s 6-4 win. “He has a better changeup, a better breaking ball. I think he’s commanding his fastball better. I mean, he was really good when he came up, but he has improved overall as a pitcher, the way he holds runners, swings the bat.”
On a staff that not so long ago was headed by two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum (2010), and two years later by Matt Cain, Bumgarner’s ascension to staff ace is partly attributable to injuries, partly to weird, almost inexplicable developments, and partly to his own combination of mental grit and physical skill.
Cain is recovering from elbow surgery. Ryan Vogelsong, who was hit early and often Wednesday, spent time on the disabled list last year with a broken hand. Tim Hudson was slowed during the regular season by a sore hip. The enigmatic Lincecum remains enormously popular but afflicted by some mysterious ailment that prompted his banishment to the farthest reaches of the bullpen.
Bumgarner, whose funky, three-quarter delivery helps disguise his pitches, has mastered another element: an impassive, almost laconic demeanor that keeps him from revealing trade secrets and has the added benefit of curbing his emotions.
“I don’t want anyone to be able to tell how I’m feeling,” he said before the series. “I don’t want you guys (journalists), or the other team, or the fans or anyone to know where my head is. Sometimes, it’s probably in some bad places.”
In a classic Triple-A moment at Raley Field, Bumgarner, with the Fresno Grizzlies at the time, became infuriated at an umpire and fired a baseball into the outfield. He was ejected from the game and escorted into the clubhouse by his teammates. In an another incident, the one against the Dodgers during the last week of the regular season, he accidentally tagged Yasiel Puig on the foot and took exception when the outfielder stared back. The aptly nicknamed “Mad Bum” threw down his glove and angrily gestured with his hands, inviting Puig to meet him on the mound.
Don’t expect Bumgarner to offer much empathy for his fellow pitchers, either. When asked if he related to Cardinals reliever Randy Choate, whose errant throw led to the Giants’ winning run in Game 3, he again gave nothing away.
“That’s a heck of a way to win a ballgame on our side,” he allowed, “It’s a heck of a way to lose a game on their side. I’m not here to feel sorry for the other team. We’re here to win games, however we can get it done. It’s no fun being in his shoes, but everyone knows how good he is.”
Call the Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.