Despite none of them looking exactly like John Elway, starting pitchers are compared to horses far too often. Yet it’s difficult to describe Madison Bumgarner in human terms, so the imagery created by a large, thickly-maned man pacing back and forth in a (bull)pen during Game 7 is impossible to avoid.
It was a rare vision into the psyche of a man, a man who’d pitched so well throughout this postseason and in three World Series (0.25 ERA … what?!?!) that one was led to wonder whether he worried about anything in this world at all. As this team’s clear MVP, a Willie Mac winner at the age of 25, he couldn’t bear to watch this game any longer than he had to.
Bumgarner is like a fan of the team he leads. Watching them drives him crazy, at least during Game 7 of a World Series he had dominated up to that point.
Then, as the third pitcher in a game that was expected to see at least six or seven hurlers for each squad, Bumgarner looked … tired. Omar Infante greeted him with a single to right. Alcides Escobar gifted Bumgarner with a bunt before he was fully warmed up. Bumgarner struggled with location. Nori Aoki lined one down the left field line, and Juan Perez was positioned perfectly. Lorenzo Cain put up a good fight, but the Aoki at-bat served as Bumgarner’s smelling salts — he got ahead of Cain 0-2, and stayed elevated until he struck him out three pitches later.
The Royals were done at that point. They probably knew it, too. Remember how they looked in their dugouts during series against the A’s, Angels and Orioles? Every closeup of their dugout in the seventh (1-2-3), eighth (1-2-3) and ninth (1-2-OH-GOD-BLANCO-PEREZ-WHAT-ARE-YOU-DOING-3) innings of Game 7 made the Royals’ contingent look like a group of fans whose team was down 10-0.
That’s because Bumgarner torched the Royals over a span of 21 innings and 291 pitches.
Baseball is a team sport. The reason why WAR exists is because even the best players are only supposed to be responsible for 10-15% of a team’s wins … at the absolute most. It’s possible that the Giants could’ve patched together a winning performance in Game 7 with Bumgarner pitching only two or three innings. But that’s not what happened, and it’s hard to believe the Giants would’ve won with anything other than what Bumgarner gave the team on Wednesday night in Kansas City.
He pitched 270 innings including the postseason. His regular season numbers were strong enough to put him in the top five of most Cy Young voters’ ballots (one would think, anyway), but he just put the finishing touch on the best postseason ever (a 1.03 ERA and the most innings of all-time). If you don’t include the playoffs, his hitting numbers rank higher than most major league outfielders. When Gregor Blanco let Alex Gordon’s sinking liner skip by in the ninth, Bumgarner picked him up — like he had so many times before with other teammates.
Teammates. Jake Peavy said in August that being known as a great teammate was his preferred legacy. Bumgarner’s legacy will include a lot of things, and “valued,” or even “beloved” teammate will most certainly be on that list. Bumgarner stayed in an embrace with Ryan Vogelsong after the NLDS that lasted at least two full minutes, like a couple slow-dancing at a wedding. After winning the 2014 World Series, Vogelsong told Amy Gutierrez, “I want to find Bumgarner and give him a big kiss. Because we’re not here without him. He basically put us on his back.”
Brian Sabean called Bumgarner a “man-child,” which captures his size, strength and age perfectly. But be careful about seizing on the “child” portion of that compliment. As calm as the Giants were throughout these playoffs, and as a group they were ridiculously so, they got their cue from their best players.
- Buster Posey, who drew everything possible out of Bumgarner and sent him on the correct path 99.5% of the time.
- Bumgarner, who is as genuine as it gets.
Bumgarner didn’t win the “good guy award” from the local media (that went to Hudson), and he knew why. He doesn’t suffer fools, and whenever anyone asked a dumb question, he let them know. Not in a mean way, and certain media members (guilty!) loved it when Bumgarner teased those whose questions were subpar, but Hudson was a little more courteous to the ones who asked “how did it feel to …” questions. But ask Bumgarner a moderately intelligent question or better, and he’ll give you a straightforward, often hilarious answer.
I’ve gotten a couple of chances to talk off the record with Bruce Bochy, thanks to charity events Amici’s put together for SF Homeless Prenatal. Hopefully I’m not stepping out of bounds here, but I asked Bochy about Bumgarner a year ago, and I still remember what he said (after a big smile, which was rare on that day because the Giants had lost that afternoon): “He’s one of my favorites.”
Then you see Bumgarner after winning a World Series — not quite by himself, but he was the undoubted MVP in a series where Hunter Pence hit .444 — and he was clearly exhausted. Phew, he’s human! Asking the Giants to vacate three championships for using a cyborg would’ve been embarrassing. But during the game, he seemed like a really good human, or at least one who cared for, respected and even loved all of his teammates. (He did tell Posey, “I love you” as they embraced after the final out on Wednesday night, after all.)
Fox’s cameras showed the bullpen before Bumgarner was set to make his appearance, while Jeremy Affeldt was putting the finishing touches on a tremendous relief outing of his own.
Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong and Jean Machi sat down. One thing I’ve noticed about successful teams (I’m putting the recent vintage 49ers in this category) is that the players touch each other a lot more than most men who don’t play sports for a living or live in the United States. Words can only do so much; after spending so many months together, some gestures say more. Bumgarner patted Vogelsong’s leg.
Then he put his arm around Jean Machi, who returned the gesture in kind.
Some say winning breeds chemistry, but without chemistry the wins will dry up at some point. After seeing a few bad teams and some really, really good teams up close, I truly believe this.
The Giants are extremely lucky that their best pitcher isn’t a singular figure. Yeah, he can crush balls to left field. But he leads in ways other than throwing the best high fastballs, diving cutters and biting curves. Bumgarner pitches, he hits, he wins postseason games and he leads by example and with honest friendship. It’s hard to imagine a better pitcher in October, or any time for that matter. But the more one gets to see Bumgarner in action, the easier it becomes to see how he was able to pull off what appeared to be impossible in this World Series.