The most telling moment was late in Madison Bumgarner’s historical start in Game 4 of the 2010 World Series. It wasn’t a strikeout or a double play he induced. It was a moment when things were looking shaky.
In the seventh inning, the Giants’ defense — which to that point was solid to the point of being spectacular — had a little hiccup when Juan Uribe botched the exchange on one of the easiest groundball chances at third base he’d faced the entire postseason. Bumgarner followed the error by striking out Guerrero for the third time in three at-bats on a changeup that served as a living metaphor for time passing. Then, the always-scary Nelson Cruz drilled a single to center, and the possibility of a game-tying homer was in the back of every Giants fan, player, coach, employee and investor.
Buster Posey ran out to the mound to chat with Bumgarner, as did Uribe — who just can’t help but trot to the mound and give his two cents any time he can in situations like these. The camera immediately went to the dugout, as the smart money was on Bruce Bochy coming out to rescue his 21-year-old starter who’d performed to that point better than anyone could have hoped (more on that later) and replace him with Santiago Casilla, who was warming up in the bullpen.
What followed was a moment that will be replayed in the minds of Posey and Bumgarner as long as Bochy calls the shots. And at this point, that looks to be a very long time.
Righetti went up a couple of steps, looked to Bruce and looked to be asking him if he wanted his pitching coach to go out and at least brief Bumgarner on what NOT to do, hardly a strange idea with Ian Kinsler walking to the plate with men on first and second. Bochy, besides rocking in his chair, never moved. Even crazier, he told Righetti to stay put. The kids had this thing under control, Bochy effectively said.
When it comes to moments like these, when managers and coaches in professional sports all try to prove on television just how much of a difference they make for their teams, it’s tough to think of any other coach who would cede control in that situation, save for maybe Phil Jackson. Jackson’s been around the best players in the NBA for so long because he treats them like adults. He lets his teams run timeouts, only coming in for the last 30 seconds or so to impart one point he wants them to focus on. He doesn’t call timeout every time the team is floundering, because he doesn’t want them looking over their shoulder for daddy’s help every time they face adversity.
Bochy didn’t let Posey and Uribe be the only ones to chat with Bumgarner for the purpose of long-term growth, however. He trusted that Bumgarner still had good stuff and didn’t look emotionally injured in any way. Still, in situations like these that make or break careers and affect lives in a domino-effect fashion that none of us could even hope to comprehend, it was possibly the brightest sign for the Giants’ future — in a season that’s been full of them — one that shows they’re in good hands. Both with the two youngsters who formed tonight’s battery that tore through the American League’s best offense for 8 innings, and the man who let them face Ian Kinsler without advice from anyone watching in the dugout.
But this battery, young as they may be, is hardly intimidated by the scope of what they’re trying to achieve. In fact, they didn’t even hide their mouths when they talked to each other about Kinsler. This wasn’t about calming down a guy who wasn’t getting calls, this was two southern kids who could probably speak with such a strong drawl to each other if they wanted to that most people living in the Bay Area would need subtitles to understand them.
Tim McCarver read his notes and alerted us that Ian Kinsler loves inside pitches, that he’d pulled 3 homers this postseason. So what was the first pitch Bumgarner threw to him? A 91-mph fastball on the inside corner. Posey wasn’t worried about Kinsler’s strengths, Bumgarner’s command or even masking intent. He gave an inside target, and Bumgarner nailed it. Next up was an 83-mph changeup that Kinsler only made solid contact on because it caught so much of the plate. Such solid content that it hit the middle of his bat and rendered it useless by putting a solid crack through the maple.
How does Bumgarner do it? First, how is he so unhittable without a wicked breaking pitch or an upper-90’s fastball?
1. He hasn’t faced the Rangers, just like he didn’t face the Braves or Phillies.
2. Bumgarner’s 3/4 delivery and outstanding flexibility, which allows him to hide the ball almost behind his back a little longer than most left-handed pitchers.
3. He throws strikes and changes speeds, which is essentially what pitching is. But while it doesn’t really show up on TV, Bumgarner’s changeup is on its way to becoming one of the best pitches in the game, perhaps as soon as next year. Or, now.
But how does Bumgarner handle the pressure of postseason baseball after less than a full season in the Majors after turning 21 on August 1?
Bumgarner’s so young and his North Carolina accent so thick, it’s tempting to say, “The kid just doesn’t know what he’s doing out there.” That’s hardly true. Just because he’s from the south and didn’t attend college doesn’t mean he’s unintelligent or unaware of his surroundings or accomplishments. He’s married, he’s dealt with the death of a beloved sister just eight months ago, and we all were taught by YouTube that Bumgarner’s got a healthy temper.
This isn’t some mindless phenom who can throw 99 mph, or someone who’s mind’s in another place. He’s just really good at staying and looking calm, and why shouldn’t he be?
It takes talent to be able to throw strikes consistently. To believe in oneself so strongly to decide that no matter what, you’re going to throw strikes to Major League hitters, is beyond fearless. It’s confidence, intelligence and loyalty. The confidence that your stuff’s good enough to get Major League hitters out, the intelligence to know that even the best Major League hitters get hit every now and then, and loyalty to do what your coaches tell you to again and again, regardless of the result.
This hasn’t been a perfect road for Bumgarner. In his first Major League start, on September 8 of last season, he never hit 90 mph and gave up a couple homers in what was otherwise a pretty decent 5-inning effort against San Diego. He didn’t get another Major League start until June 26, 2010, when he gave up 2 homers and 4 ER in what was actually another solid start, this time against the Red Sox. In between then he dealt with grief, velocity questions and losing the 5th starter’s role to Todd Wellemeyer.
But compared to the journeys most players make to the Major Leagues, Bumgarner’s has been both magical and inevitable. He didn’t come out of nowhere like Andres Torres, he was a 10th overall pick. We’ve always known why, but his arrival tonight into the national conversation was something to celebrate. Not all teams and fans get to see greatness from day one. Bumgarner’s greatness was evident before he ever hit our TV screens, and now he’s a national star and it hardly seems like he noticed. But there’s something deeper there that we aren’t allowed to see. His teammates know a guy who is as talented, composed and competitive as they come. Since this is baseball, more shaky moments are sure to come, but nothing Bumgarner can’t handle for the foreseeable future.