ARLINGTON, Texas – Everyone can laugh about it now, because, hey, when you're one game from a World Series championship, chuckles come easy. Not very long ago, the San Francisco Giants were concerned about Madison Bumgarner(notes). Oh, they slough it off today, pshaw it away, cloak it in a smile, but make no mistake: In spring training, when their wunderkind couldn't get his fastball near 90 mph, many a fingernail was nibbled to the nub.
They thought he was hurt. Tired. Out of shape. Something. Nobody loses nearly 10 mph just like that. Bumgarner was supposed to crack the Giants' rotation. He didn't. And to ensure not all confidence escaped him on the sojourn to Triple-A Fresno, Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti let Bumgarner know one important detail: "You'll be on this team, I swear to God, one way or another."
They laugh. Of course they do. They laugh because they look at Sunday night, at Madison Bumgarner's fastball topping out at 94 mph and sitting at 91, at the Texas Rangers finding themselves incapable of hitting it, or his changeup, or his slider, at this kid with the poor excuse for a beard defusing the American League champions with the savoir faire of a bomb doctor snipping a wire. In Game 4 of the World Series, Bumgarner turned in an all-time dandy, becoming the 85th player to throw at least eight shutout innings and, at 21 years, 91 days, the second youngest of that group.
And with a 4-0 victory that pushed the Giants to a 3-1 series lead and the precipice of their first title since moving to San Francisco more than half a century ago, Bumgarner weaved his way into franchise lore and dragged along with him a friend and cohort with whom he expects to spend plenty more history-making seasons.
Joining him in Fresno back in April was Buster Posey(notes), like Bumgarner a highly touted first-round pick, unlike Bumgarner somebody who at the time deserved to be in the major leagues. While they were there for different reasons – Bumgarner to rediscover what went missing as he ascended toward the major leagues, Posey to supposedly work on catching defense that, in truth, was already big-league ready – those moments gaining each other's trust and developing feel helped shape Game 4 and, by extension, this season.
In Fresno, Posey learned to read Bumgarner through his eyes. He saw Bumgarner's forlorn look after his first two starts in which he allowed 21 hits in seven innings. He witnessed the mechanical adjustments – Bumgarner said his delivery featured timing problems – that brought most of the velocity back. He understood how Bumgarner recalibrated himself to throw left-handed darts inside, slurves on the outside corner, sliders in the dirt. And here, on baseball's biggest stage, Bumgarner and Posey, the first all-rookie battery in the World Series since the Yankees’ Spec Shea and Yogi Berra in 1947, eviscerated a Rangers team now hitting .211 in the series. Texas mustered three singles, and when Posey visited the mound to calm Bumgarner at one juncture, he realized it a wasted trip.
"You can tell by just looking at a guy's face sometimes," Posey said. "That's why I didn't stay out there too long. He had that look in his eyes like nothing was going to faze him."
Little does. All of this came so suddenly, Bumgarner said, it would've been foolish to bother thinking about it. The magnitude might have hit him otherwise, and considering he said before this postseason his biggest pressure came from a high school playoff game in North Carolina, ignorance, in this instance, was a performance-enhancing drug.
"Just keep telling myself to relax," he said. "And I've told myself so much that it's starting to become second nature, and it makes it a lot easier on me and the players, I think, to see somebody that's relaxed out there throwing."
Afterward, Bumgarner began to understand the gravity of his three-hit, two-walk, six-strikeout performance. He sat in the corner of the press conference room and couldn't stop moving. He scratched his eyes, crossed his arms, fidgeted with his legs, slipped his hands into his hoodie pocket, contorted his face. He was excited and overwhelmed.
So were the rest of the Giants.
Here they were, this group of "misfits," as manager Bruce Bochy calls them, or "morons," per first baseman Aubrey Huff(notes), and they've got the winner of the last two National League Cy Young awards, Tim Lincecum(notes), pitching in Game 5. And if they happen to run into a Cliff Lee(notes) buzz saw there, they head back home with Matt Cain(notes), with his postseason ERA of 0.00, pitching in Game 6. Should it go to a Game 7, the Giants will throw the kitchen sink at the Rangers, already shut out twice, the first team to suffer such ignominy since the 1966 Dodgers.
Game 4 was the classic swing game. The Rangers win and the series turns into a best-of-three. The Rangers lose and they must buck history: Only five of 42 teams with a 3-1 deficit in the World Series have come back to win.
Bumgarner ensured the latter with his arm, and Posey chipped in, too, smashing a home run to dead center field in the eighth inning for an insurance run. Though his bat has fluctuated between potent and impotent, Posey's prowess behind the plate is clearly improved. The Giants' pitchers respect the 23-year-old, and their 2.57 ERA this postseason vindicates his ability to handle the staff.
"I don't know that I ever really remembered him being a rookie," Cain said. "Maybe we thought about it when we were thinking of dressing him up [for rookie hazing]. But then we were thinking, 'Hey, that's not a good idea. He's kind of our big guy. Maybe we'll leave him alone.' "
"We'll always think of him as a rookie," Cain said. "He's with us starters. We'll always think of him as that rookie guy. We'll haze him as long as we can."
Cain made sure to needle Bumgarner for stopping in the hallway of a cramped clubhouse and allowing a swarm of TV cameras to surround him and block the exit. Total rookie move. He'll learn for next time.
And there should be plenty more of those. With Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner and Jonathan Sanchez(notes), the Giants have a rotation with the ability to lock down even the best offenses, and they're all under team control for at least two more years. Bumgarner and Posey should remain for another half-decade, and no young pitcher and catcher tantalizes quite like them.
They're both Southerners, both fancying jeans and plaid shirts and cowboy boots, both just here to play some ball, like they did in Fresno. The Giants survived those two months without Bumgarner and Posey, played just well enough to eke out the division.
With them, though? Well, with them, they're looking like champions.