SAN FRANCISCO — Madison Bumgarner has spent the first part of this postseason watching his teammates pick him up after disappointing starts in the first two rounds.
Now he'd like to pay them back.
Though both Pablo Sandoval and Barry Zito turned in surprise performances in Wednesday's Game 1 win, Bumgarner remains the real wild card of this World Series between the Giants and Detroit Tigers. If the 23-year-old left-hander can manage a victory in Thursday night's Game 2 at AT&T Park, he'll put the Giants in a commanding position as the series shifts to Detroit. Of the 36 teams that have taken a 2-0 lead in the World Series after two home games, 29 went on to win the World Series. Overall, that number holds a similar rate of 40 of 50 teams.
But taking that two-game lead is easier said than done because Bumgarner's struggles and loss of velocity have been one of the few lowlights for San Francisco this postseason. They even created some speculation that he wouldn't even make the Giants' rotation in the World Series. He gave up four runs in 4 1/3 innings of work against the Cincinnati Reds in a 9-0 loss in NLDS Game 2 and then gave up six runs (including two homers) in 3 2/3 innings during a 6-4 loss in NLCS Game 1 to the St. Louis Cardinals. Both losses came at home and the poor performances led to Giants manager Bruce Bochy not calling Bumgarner's name for NLCS Game 5, opting for Barry Zito's services instead. It was a decision that may have saved the Giants' season and one that people should cite when they give Bochy credit for being a good manager who knows his players.
It's also one that Bochy is hoping will fix Bumgarner's approach. If you go back to his last nine starts, Bumgarner's record is 2-6 with a 6.85 ERA, a mark that might suggest the young pitcher is either tired, unfocused or both. He'll pitch Game 2 of the World Series with the benefit of 10 days of rest and while he wouldn't get specific about mechanical adjustments when asked about them on Wednesday, he said that he and pitching coach Dave Righetti had ironed them out. He'd obviously like to get back to the form that earned him a 3.38 ERA during the regular season as well as a 2.38 ERA while pitching at AT&T Park during the year.
"I think we were going through some mechanical issues ... just some small things that might have affected my arm and made it more difficult to throw," Bumgarner said of his struggles on Wednesday. "I think that's really all it was. I think we've got it fixed."
Bochy said he didn't hesitate in calling Bumgarner's name for the World Series rotation.
"He has experience of pitching postseason," Bochy said. "He's done well, and he's dealt with the adversity that you have to deal with as a player. The good ones bounce back. They're resilient. We certainly feel that way with Madison ... I don't care how good you are —occasionally you're going to have to deal with some adversity. But he's a tough kid. We forget sometimes, he's only 23 years old, and he's already done a lot in his career."
Bumgarner has been described as the World Series wild card because we've seen him play that role in the past. As a 21-year-old, the Hickory, N.C., native staged his big coming out party in the run to the 2010 World Series title, throwing eight scoreless, three-hit innings in a Game 4 win that gave the Giants a 3-1 series lead over the Texas Rangers.
Back then, Bumgarner talked about trying to approach his playoff starts the same way he approached his appearance in his high school's state championship game. That elicited a lot of smiles and jokes in 2010, but created an awkward situation when Bumgarner was asked about the comment on Wednesday:
Q. A few years ago you had said pitching in the World Series was kind of like pitching in a high school state championship game.
MADISON BUMGARNER: I didn't say that. Y'all made it sound that way, but I didn't say that.
Q. Matt Cain did acknowledge that he teased you, he was probably one of the ones who teased you about that comment at the time. Do you remember some flak that you got from the guys?
MADISON BUMGARNER: Yeah, because that's what happens when people don't write what you say.
Q. Why don't you tell us what you meant maybe.
MADISON BUMGARNER: Well, we don't need to talk about the last World Series.
Indeed, Bumgarner needs to think about this World Series and maybe stay a little bit ornery because this matchup against Doug Fister won't be easy. The Detroit Tigers starter comes into this game from perhaps the exact opposite route of Bumgarner. The 28-year-old right-hander has given up just two earned runs in 13 1/3 innings of postseason work this fall and is coming off an ALCS Game 1 performance that saw him pitch 6 1/3 scoreless innings against the New York Yankees. He only missed out on the win because of Jose Valverde's meltdown and, over his last 17 starts, owns an 8-4 record with a 2.52 ERA.
Fister's command will have to be good because the Giants didn't let Justin Verlander off easy in Game 1. According to MLB.com's Matthew Leach, no San Francisco at-bat lasted fewer than three pitches. (Though with the way Pablo Sandoval blasted any pitch in Game 1, regardless of location, maybe Fister's command won't matter that much.)
Either way, we're looking at an intriguing matchup between one pitcher looking to stop what he's been doing and another looking to just continue it. Despite the road start, Fister is guaranteed to have a few fans in the stands as he grew up in Merced, Calif., about 130 miles away from San Francisco.
In fact, he may have even grew up rooting for the Giants.
"Don't tell anybody," he joked.
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