Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Pitch That Killed: Madison Bumgarner, Eric Hosmer, and the Shifting of Fate for Cinderella

It was an eighty-six miles per hour slider. The bases were loaded with two outs in the home half the third inning. Eric Hosmer, who had come up with clutch hits time and time again this postseason, couldn't lay off. Perhaps that's the magic that Madison Bumgarner possesses. Moments earlier, the Royals had men on second and third with no outs following a Mike Moustakas double. Only down three runs, Kansas City looked prime to get back into the game. The crowd that had mellowed to mumbles and ground static was building back to a familiar roar. They could feel something special about to happen. As Hosmer stepped in, it was like fate was about to enter the rumbling walls of Kauffman Stadium. The at bat would last one pitch. As Bumgarner delivered, the game itself was in the balance.

Two innings earlier, in the top of the first, the Giants had manufactured a lead. Gregor Blanco led off with a single, then advanced to third on a Joe Panik fly ball and a Buster Posey base hit. Pablo Sandoval, no novice to the World Series pressure, cranked a long line drive to the right field corner. Outfielder Nori Aoki misread the bounce, but quickly gathered his footing to corral the ball. Blanco scored easily. Racing around from first was Posey. Never one to be a track star, Buster Posey still managed to pedal his way past the third base bag as Aoki whipped the ball toward the infield dirt. Second baseman Omar Infante cut it off near first base, turned, and fired home to the waiting mitt of Salvador Perez. Posey was five feet away. Plenty of time for Perez to catch, turn, and swipe the leg of the would-be scorer. Pablo Sandoval stood at second base with a double. For a moment, it seemed as if the ill-advised sending of Posey would come to hurt the Giants. Being the grandest of stages, every run can be precious. Then Hunter Pence stepped in against the Royals' James Shields.

Hunter Pence is a peculiar individual. Often times during his televised interviews, I will pay close attention to check if he actually blinks. His wide eyes and messy hair, coupled with a blonde beard that looks to have been trimmed during an earthquake, give Pence a rather unique appearance. All season long, opposing fans across baseball brought signs to every ballpark spouting random and trivially false information about the outfielder. Things like HUNTER PENCE CAN'T PARALLEL PARK and HUNTER PENCE STILL HAS A BLOCKBUSTER CARD adorned signs across America. Not to be outdone, the Giants' faithful eventually countered this with signs of their own, including but not limited to: HUNTER PENCE REMEMBERED YOUR BIRTHDAY WITHOUT FACEBOOK. Clearly the man is beloved... I guess. Pence hit 20 home runs in the regular season this year, which is a mild decline from his mid-twenties average. Never considered a power hitter, Pence went into Tuesday night with one career postseason home run- in the 2012 NLCS against St. Louis. He worked a full count in his first at bat against Shields. With Sandoval looking to score on a deep base hit, Pence fouled off another low-ninties fastball. In the seventh pitch of the at bat, Shields sent yet another fastball Pence's way. As he made contact, it seemed like a deep fly ball- nothing threatening. But the ball carried into deep center field, curling right. Over the head of Lorenzo Cain, over the warning track, over the wall. A two-run home run for the bizarre Giants' outfielder. Before their ace pitcher even took the mound, complete with an immaculate World Series resume, San Francisco was up three runs. Before even getting up to bat, Kansas City's game one fate looked grim.

The postseason brilliance of Madison Bumgarner is well known by now. Where a world-beating ace like Clayton Kershaw stumbled in October with flying colors, Bumgarner changed from a stellar pitcher to unbeatable. He would only strike out five batters in game one, but two of those would be critical. In that third inning, after Moustakas gave the Royals an early scoring threat, Bumgarner needed a strikeout. He needed three, actually. Alcides Escobar was the first to have a shot at driving in the runs. He fouled off three straight pitches. The fourth was a ninety-two miles per hour fastball. Escobar couldn't lay off. He swung right through it. Strike three. One away. Next would be Nori Aoki, who was hitless in his career against the Giants' lefty. Aoki fouled off two fastballs. Bumgarner delivered a curveball next. Aoki couldn't lay off. The ball maneuvered around his bat and into the glove of Buster Posey. Strike three. Two down. Lorezo Cain began his at bat with two strikes as well. Then Bumgarner's location loosened. Cain held up on four straight pitches, and trotted to first to load the bases. The crowd, who had dimmed their excitement following the strikeouts, turned their fizzle to a rolling thunder as Hosmer walked to bat. Bumgarner got his sign, wound up and delivered that eighty-six miles per hour slider. Hosmer couldn't lay off. As he turned and brought his bat around, the ball's trajectory changed. The Royals' first baseman adjusted and made contact.

The ball chopped early on the right side of the infield. Hosmer sprinted to first. As second baseman Joe Panik snared the grounder, it was over. A soft toss to Brandon Belt at first ended the threat and the inning. It would be the Royals' best chance to manufacture runs. Hindsight being twenty-twenty, the game was over.

San Francisco put up four more runs by the time Salvador Perez came to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning. To date, Bumgarner had not given up a run, earned or unearned, in two previous World Series starts. The 2010 Texas Rangers and 2012 Detroit Tigers featured well-known offensive monsters, including Adiran Beltre and Josh Hamilton as well as Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. The Royals had no true offensive threat. Salvador Perez surely wasn't a power bat. His career high was set this season at seventeen. Bumgarner, working deep into the game with a seven run lead, had just crossed one hundred pitches. Perez launched a deep and high fly ball to left field. As it cleared the wall and dropped into the home bullpen, the Royals were finally on the board. There was no one on base, and they wouldn't score again, but at least they had the peace of mind knowing they ended Bumgarner's streak. I suppose minor victories need to be pulled in a game that was clearly one sided from beginning to end. On the other side, the Giants became the first team to beat Kansas City this postseason. For the Royals, everything that is left in their season depends on how they react to their first loss in nearly a month.

Baseball forgives quickly. For Kansas City, tonight brings an opportunity to take the series back. While mathematically, game two is not a must win, heading to San Francisco for three games, down two already, is rather damning. For the Giants, they got what they needed. Sending Madison Bumgarner to the hill, they knew there was a great chance at leaving the midwest with at least a split. In achieving that, they are now three wins away from their third World Series championship in five seasons.

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