Thursday, October 2, 2014

For One Night Only, pt 2: The Blooming Legend of Madison Bumgarner and the Silencing of Thunder

It was as if they hadn't been there at all. In the top half of the fourth inning, the Pittsburgh Pirates had been soundly defeated. There would be no late-inning heroics like those delivered by Kansas City the night before. The San Francisco Giants, led by ace pitcher Madison Bumgarner came to PNC Park as the lowest ranked team left in the National League. By the time the 27th out was recorded, they looked ready, willing, and more than able to make their biannual deep playoff run.

After the dramatic finish to the American League Wild Card game the night before, many of us were left with a sort of hangover. There was a consensus that Wednesday night's National League game could not match what we had witnessed on Tuesday. Of course, we were correct. But to merely check the box score would not do this game any justice. While it was a one sided affair, it was the near-invincibility of that side which should be praised.

Madison Bumgarner, a pitcher known well for his commanding delivery as well as his success at the plate, had been slotted for the one-game playoff in Pittsburgh. He was a twenty-one year old rookie in 2010 when the Giants shut down the powerful Texas Rangers in the World Series. He won game four of that series, setting the stage for a game five clincher the next night. Two years later, he was a seasoned veteran, notching over two-hundred innings in 2011 and 2012. Come late October, San Francisco was again in the World Series. Bumgarner won game two of a somewhat closely contested series that surprisingly ended in a Giants sweep of the Detroit Tigers. In two World Series games, he had only given up five hits, and while he was on the mound, no opposing player touched home plate. The man they call Mad Bum, aged twenty-five years since early August, was already carrying a legacy of masterful performance in high-pressure situations. In front of a record crowd at hostile PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Bumgarner looked right at home.

Last year, when the Pirates hosted the National League Wild Card game, the capacity crowd outright destroyed Reds ace Johnny Cueto. The final score was much closer than the game appeared to be, and Pittsburgh won their first playoff game in two decades. Wednesday night, that same intense, black-clad mob assembled to fill Madison Bumgarner's head with violent noise. The only difference was that he had heard it all already. Cueto was relatively new to the postseason, and it showed. Bumgarner, with his October laurels gleaming, was unfazed. All he would need is a little run support. The game would begin and move along quickly, but after three innings, the Giants' ace was sailing and his lineup would get him what he needed.

Through three innings, Pirates' starter Edinson Volquez was enough. Because of Pittsburgh's gamble on Sunday, starting ace Gerrit Cole in vain attempt to claim the Central Division, Voquez was thrust into an ace-level role for Wednesday night. Pregame commentators all claimed that he is an excitable guy who needs to control his emotions on the mound. Those emotions barely had time to come into play. In the top of the fourth, Pablo Sandoval singled off of Volquez. Hunter Pence followed suit. Volquez walked Brandon Belt to load the bases for Brandon Crawford. The crowd was behind their starter, and there was a feeling that he could get out of the predicament. Crawford saw four pitches. The fourth, a knuckle-curve, hung just long enough to become a fly ball. It looked initially to be a deep sacrifice fly. Then it appeared to be off the wall. The baseball just kept going until it was beyond the reach of right fielder Travis Snider. Gone. A grand slam. In that moment you could feel, even through a television, that the entire PNC Park audience knew the game was over. Four run leads are not insurmountable, but against a nemesis like Madison Bumgarner, it most certainly was. Crawford had given his starting pitcher a cushion, becoming the first short stop ever to hit a grand slam in the postseason in the process.

Like Tuesday night, the two teams were comparable, but with vastly different postseason pedigrees. Pittsburgh, last season's darlings, had established themselves as a potential perennial playoff contender in 2014. Their Cinderella status had been stolen by Kansas City, and rightfully so. The Pirates are still new to the postseason, however. The Giants are not. Two World Series in three seasons, keeping their core players together in the process, creates a postseason Goliath to Pittsburgh's David. Yet unlike in the biblical parable, Goliath won wholeheartedly. Last year, the Pirates were happy to be here. In 2014, they wanted to establish a reputation as a team in the hunt for a championship. Unfortunately for those sympathetic to the black and gold, they met a team with as much playoff experience as any team in baseball.

What can be taken from Wednesday night is that the second Wild Card serves a purpose. The Giants, though powerful, were forced to burn their ace before they earned the right to take on the Washington Nationals. So for now, all we have is a brilliant performance by an historic pitcher who only continues to rise. We have a dominant performance, proving the dichotomy of playoff experience (and lack thereof) true. Friday, San Francisco gets their shot at the National League's best team. If they are to win their third World Series in five years, they may have found their toughest test yet.

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