A little more than two weeks before Madison Bumgarner strong-armed the Kansas City Royals in Game 7 of the World Series, before he took the ball on two days of rest and refused to give it back till long past sundown, before he carved himself into an October legend and before he beckoned the San Francisco Giants to their third victory parade in five seasons, he stood on a mound on the opposite side of the state of Missouri.
And a disturbing thought crossed his mind.
“This is their inning,” said Bumgarner, as he faced the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLCS. “Regardless of whether I gave them anything to hit or any momentum, I kind of figured they’d feel they had some.”
It was the seventh inning, and although the Cardinals trailed 3–0, they were threatening. The red-clad crowd filled Busch Stadium with noise after Yadier Molina singled on a first-pitch fastball and Jon Jay poked a blooper on a two-strike slider. The Giants had one out, and swollen eardrums, and one very unsettling bit of knowledge: This was when the Cardinals wrecked Clayton Kershaw. Twice.
“I had to tell myself, ‘OK, I’ve got to make a pitch and keep this thing from unraveling,’” Bumgarner said.
He did more than that. He lowered his shoulder while covering first base on Kolten Wong’s grounder, veering in front of the baseline like a stock car driving an opponent into the wall. Wong bounced off him like a spring. Then Bumgarner overpowered Tony Cruz with a high fastball to strand two runners in scoring position.
And he walked off the mound. Something that Kershaw, the greatest pitcher on the planet, couldn’t do. Either time.
“We don’t necessarily put a star by the seventh inning or anything,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “We just know that we stay the course, and we needed someone to come up there and get a big hit for us. And Madison Bumgarner was good today. He kept us from having that big inning.”
That was just one unyielding moment from a postseason of pure brawn and bravado that the modern game had never witnessed before. Bumgarner reached all the way back with that slinging delivery of his and snuffed out one opponent after another.
No matter how far you reached back, you couldn’t find a more dominant October pitching performance in baseball history. Bumgarner threw 52.2 innings over four playoff rounds, the heaviest load ever, and posted a 1.03 ERA.
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When the Giants faced elimination in the wild card showdown at Pittsburgh, Bumgarner walked into the black-shirted din of PNC Park and played a funeral dirge. He threw a four-hit shutout and struck out 10.
When the Giants needed an ace to step up against the Cardinals, the team that had just taken a car crusher to Kershaw, Bumgarner zipped through with a pair of victories. Then he dominated the Royals in both his World Series starts, throwing a four-hit shutout in Game 5.
And when the Giants found themselves in dire straits amid baseball’s ultimate winner-take-all game, Bumgarner trotted from the bullpen on two days of rest, commandeered the ball and protected a one-run lead over five shutout innings.
The Giants did something that hadn’t been accomplished in the World Series since 1979: They won a Game 7 on the road.
What Bumgarner did was unmatched, period.
He became the first pitcher in history to record two wins and a save in a single World Series, striking out 17 and walking one while yielding just one run to the Royals over 21 innings. And a five-inning save in the Fall Classic? That was flat-out ridiculous. No pitcher had ever come close to such a feat. Heck, it hadn’t been done in a regular-season game in 12 years.
“At one point I looked at the pitch count and thought to myself, ‘Why are you even worried about it?’” Giants GM Brian Sabean said. “With each inning, he was getting stronger. He was getting more and more into their heads.”
And why wouldn’t he? Just 72 hours earlier, Bumgarner had thrown a four-hit, 117-pitch shutout against them in Game 5 — the first World Series shutout since Josh Beckett in 2003, and the first no-walk Series shutout since Kansas City’s own Bret Saberhagen in 1985.
There was no doubt in manager Bruce Bochy’s mind that Bumgarner would be a factor out of the bullpen in Game 7. He envisioned two innings, maybe three. When Tim Hudson lasted just five outs, though, the plan changed. Jeremy Affeldt, whose 22 consecutive scoreless postseason appearances rank one behind Mariano Rivera for the all-time record, stabilized matters over his 2.1 innings. The Giants scratched out a one-run lead.
Bumgarner was next, and Bochy let him go. On 68 pitches, 50 for strikes, he took them further than anyone thought possible.
“I was thinking maybe if he could get through the eighth, that would be amazing,” Giants catcher Buster Posey said. “But he got stronger. He got locked in. I asked him during that first inning — he wasn’t too crisp — so it’s, ‘Hey, are you OK?’ And he goes ‘(grunt) Yeah, man, I just gotta get loose.’”
Earlier in the series, Royals manager Ned Yost joked that his three-closer bullpen of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland allowed him to turn off his brain in the late innings. With Bumgarner, Bochy could spend the game in a hammock.
That’s what made Bumgarner’s performance so remarkable. In an era of accelerating bullpen specialization, and in a series between two teams that were masterful at shortening a game, Bumgarner kicked it old school. There was no need to play matchups. Bochy had the best percentage play in the ballpark.
“I mean, you have to say, ‘Is there anybody I have to put in this game better than what I’ve got out there?’” Hudson said. “And there ain’t. He’s the best player on the field any time he’s on the mound.”
Said Bumgarner: “You want to finish the game. That is the ultimate goal, to go out and give them innings. I feel like if you throw a lot of innings, all the other stuff will take care of itself.”
It didn’t work out so well for most every other ace in the postseason — especially Kershaw, who let those two leads slip away against the Cardinals and ended up getting hit for 11 runs in 12.2 innings. It was a stunning pair of outcomes for a pitcher who was 21–3 with a 1.77 ERA and would go on to win a unanimous Cy Young Award as well as become the first NL starting pitcher to take home league MVP honors since Bob Gibson in 1968. Bumgarner couldn’t lay claim to being the best left-handed pitcher in his own division, and because the Giants couldn’t catch the Dodgers, they had to sneak into the playoffs.
It didn’t matter. If Bochy’s teams have proved anything over the last five years, it’s that anyone with an October entry stamp can win the prize.
Bumgarner already owned World Series victories over the Texas Rangers (as a 21-year-old rookie) in 2010 and the Detroit Tigers in 2012, when he combined to allow those teams just five hits over 15 shutout innings.
After he accepted his World Series MVP trophy in Kansas City, his career 0.25 ERA in the Fall Classic ranked as the lowest in World Series history for pitchers with a minimum of 25 innings. Bumgarner became the first pitcher to win his first four World Series starts since Lew Burdette in 1957-58.
“In the history of the game there have been some great efforts, guys that have (thrown) three games and things like that,” Bochy said. “But I haven’t seen a better pitcher over the course of this postseason, and it’s been a pretty long one. To do what he’s done is pretty historic, I think.”
And to think — it all could’ve been lost had Bumgarner slipped up once to the last batter he faced. The Giants made an error with two outs in the ninth that allowed Alex Gordon to race all the way to third base representing the tying run. Salvador Perez, who hit a solo home run off Bumgarner in Game 1, stepped to the plate with a chance to win it.
Bumgarner didn’t want to risk bouncing a curveball. He wasn’t going to give in with anything over the plate. He threw high fastballs, one after the other, and the sixth heater resulted in a foul pop for the final out.
You’d never know, as Bumgarner overpowered the final hitter of the 2014 baseball season, that he had thrown a grand total of 270 innings — the most by a Giant in 41 years.
“He just … he did what he wanted with the baseball,” Posey said. “That’s the simplest way I can describe it.”
— Written by Andy Baggarly for Athlon Sports