Monday, October 27, 2014

October's Very Own: The Artist Known As Madison Bumgarner and the Last Night in San Francisco

There was a stone cold glare in his eyes. The twenty-five year old pitcher, now a veteran to World Series pressure, showed no emotion. As was the case all night. Madison Bumgarner was an out away from a complete game shutout in the World Series. Eric Hosmer had swung hard at his first two offerings and let the next three trail outside. With a full count, Bumgarner delivered an eighty-eight miles per hour slider low and outside. This postseason has been full of surprises and upsets, but it has mostly been about the pitcher on the mound Sunday night. Bumgarner had started October with a complete dismantling of the Pirates, and aimed to finish it with the same dominance against Kansas City. Seldom is a pitcher so feared that he is given the expectation that his game is a foregone conclusion. Even more rare is the pitcher that can not only meet that level of hype, but exceed it.

Before game three, the media sentiment was clear for Kansas City- win at least one of the next two games, because you do not want to go into game five needing a win against Madison Bumgarner. The man had become so influential to the outcome of the series that the Royals' game planning was centered around doing just that. Luckily for them, game three fell in their favor. Once San Francisco won the next night, the general assumption was that the series would go back to Kansas City with the Giants on the brink of another title. Bumgarner was just that good. As game five neared, there was mild chatter that maybe the Royals could finally break the young pitcher. After all, they are the first team to see him twice in the World Series. Once the game actually began, Bumgarner's artistry was front and center. He would manipulate, sometimes even toy with the Kansas City lineup.

Through two innings, the Giants' ace had already recorded four strikeouts, including the last three batters he faced. His fastball was topping out at ninety-four miles per hour. Mixing flawless location with deceptive movement, Bumgarner rolled through the order. His slider was poetic. It seemed almost surreal in flight, diving down as if controlled by a kamikaze pilot. Buster Posey was in tune with his pitcher, picking up the late ball movement like there was a string connecting their left hands. Bumgarner was already in complete control. He had given up two hits, but neither man had reached second base.

In the bottom half of the inning, Bumgarner would get all the run support he would need. Hunter Pence led off with a single and advanced to second as Brandon Belt added one of his own. Travis Ishikawa worked a full count on James Shields before flying out to Jarrod Dyson in center. Pence was able to tag up and hustle down to third. With one away, pretty much any solid contact would score the run. Brandon Crawford supplied the necessary distraction as he grounded out to Omar Infante, allowing Pence to race home. With the score only 1-0, the Royals did not appear to be cast out to sea by any traditional sense, but as they came up to bat each inning, the value of Pence's run swelled.

Through four innings, Bumgarner had only thrown fifty pitches. He had retired his last nine foes in order, adding another strikeout in the form of Alex Gordon to end the third. Brandon Crawford drove in Pablo Sandoval to raise San Francisco's lead to two. AT&T Park knew what two runs meant to their beloved pitcher. In three previous World Series starts, Bumgarner had given up only one run. Granted, it came at the hand of Salvador Perez in game one, but still, his earned run average was well below one and it continued to drop. The Royals faced a monumental task.

After giving up a double to Perez in the fifth, Madison Bumgarner hit another gear. He struck out the next two batters on absolute filth. Jarrod Dyson an James Shields met the same fate, as they each saw a fastball with speed in the low-nineties, then were finished off with a menacing curveball nearly twenty miles per hour slower. The human brain is just not readily armed for that kind of deception. His pitch placement was so perfect that it seemed as if his wayward throws were all just part of the plan.

The Royals' last base hit of the game came in the top of the seventh inning. Eric Hosmer began the frame with a single to right field. Just as he had after each of the previous three hits, Bumgarner flipped a switch and shut down the rest of the side. He had moved to primarily sliders in the seventh, carving out a groove in the air between the mound and home. There was no home of hitting safely. Making contact was worthy of celebration. The amount of movement Bumgarner was able to put on the ball closely resembled an old Bugs Bunny cartoon in which the mischievous rabbit would control objects from underground with an over-sized magnet. There was just no scientific though process that could create that kind of movement. He had tossed ninety-five pitches, and showed no sign of coming out of the ballgame.

In the eighth, Billy Butler saw three pitches. he watched a fastball glide in at ninety-three miles per hour. Then a changeup at eighty six was fouled away. Then came the dagger. Bumgarner delivered a curveball over the plate at seventy-six miles per hour. Butler was frozen in his cleats. As home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt rung him up on strikes, all Butler could do is gaze off into the distance in frustration. Not he or any of his teammates could solve the figurative wizardry of the opposing pitcher. One hundred seven pitches in, Bumgarner had not lost focus, speed or location. The Giants tacked on three runs in the bottom half. For a brief moment, Santiago Casilla was called to warm up in the bullpen. It seemed like a reasonable play. The game was in hand, and Bumgarner might need to pitch in a possible game seven on Wednesday. Moments later that idea was tossed aside as the starter stepped up to bat for the last time to a rowdy ovation. He was going for the complete game win.

In the ninth, the poise and control he had shown all night was still there. Bumgarner forced Alex Gordon to line out to right field. Then Lorenzo Cain hit a soft ground ball to short. Two away. Every seat in AT&T Park was left vacant as everyone in attendance stood to cheer on history. Eric Hosmer was down two strikes quickly, then worked the at bat to a full count. On the one hundred seventeenth pitch of the game, Hosmer grounded to third base. An easy play for Pablo Sandoval. As the ball rested in the glove of first baseman Brandon Belt, the game was over. Madison Bumgarner, still stoic and cold-jawed as always, shook the hand of Posey. They embraced, but only briefly. The Giants' battery had combined for one of the finest starting pitching performances in World Series history, but it was still all business. They both had been here before. They knew there was still work to do. It was the first complete game shutout in World Series play in eleven years. The stonewall lefty's era on the game's biggest stage plummeted to 0.29, the best in history with at least four starts.

As the series turns back to Kauffman Stadium, the Royals have their backs against the wall. For the first time since the Wild Card game on September 30th, their season could end with a loss. While their prospects look bleak heading into Tuesday's game six, Kansas City and their wild home crowd can find solace in one uplifting truth- Madison Bumgarner will not start another game this season.

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