Mr. October: Madison Bumgarner continues to own baseball's postseason

SAN FRANCISCO – Along the left-field line at AT&T Park, there's a little rise of hard dirt, orangey-brown like the rest of the warning track, because that's where the bullpen – such as it is – is here. Out in the same area, there are a couple five-sided hunks of rubber.

At times Sunday night, a guy wearing a helmet and dressed in San Francisco Giants colors would jump up and clumsily deflect a ground ball. He'd run that ball down and hand it to a kid in the crowd. Then he'd go sit on his stool until the next time. Between innings, another guy in another black helmet would stand out there, his arms folded and facing the crowd. He wasn't dressed in a baseball uniform, but in a short-sleeved white shirt with a black vest over it. This was the man, apparently, who would hold back the people from coming over the wall. It'd be one on, like, 10,000, but he seemed fairly confident.

Before the tops of the innings, Billy Hayes, a coach for the Giants, might stand near that guy and warm up the left fielder. An old catcher who's got a good layer of crust on him, Hayes would do this with a catcher's mitt, and then he'd return to the dugout.

That was the most activity out of the bullpen Sunday night. There were some orange pom-poms that dangled over a rail that is just beyond the photographers' well. And someone held up a sign once or twice that read, "POSEY," just that simple. Two umpires, the one near third base and the one who'd keep an eye on the foul line, foul pole and left-field fence, stood stoic on the periphery. They didn't move around much.

Madison Bumgarner struck out eight with no walks over his nine innings. (AP)
Madison Bumgarner struck out eight with no walks over his nine innings. (AP)

In one very exciting moment, this coming at 7:45 p.m. PT, four men – pitcher Santiago Casilla, bullpen coach Mark Gardner, bullpen catcher Taira Uematsu and Hayes – left the dugout and went to the bullpen. Hayes situated himself to the infield side of Uematsu. He was in charge of making sure Uematsu, who was in a crouch and facing away from the rest of the field, was safe from baseballs and other flying objects.

At 7:46 pm, all four men returned to the dugout.

The least interesting place on the field, or perhaps anywhere you might think of, Sunday night, which was Game 5 of the World Series, was the bullpen – such as it is – along the left-field line. Nothing happened there, beyond a hoisted and shaken pom-pom and the sporadic stabs at athleticism by what they affectionately call here "ball dudes."

What's interesting about that is, the first four games of this World Series, heck even the first four weeks of this postseason, has pretty much revolved around this bullpen and nine others kind of like it. Starting pitchers have been blowing up all over the league. Managers have ridden relief pitchers hard, put 'em away wet, and ridden 'em again before they'd had a chance to dry out. One by one, the supposed aces of staffs supposed to still be up and running have gone home. They'd been undone by their bullpens, or undone by their own inabilities to pitch well enough or deep enough into playoff games, their offseason couches, come to think of it, less interesting than this particular bullpen.

This all comes back to Madison Bumgarner. He is, after all, in charge of keeping the peace in the bullpen here.

On this Sunday night in what would be his final start of his season, now 265 innings deep, Bumgarner beat the Kansas City Royals with nine of the most powerful, most precise, most willful innings this or any October might ever see. He beat them with pinpoint fastballs. He beat them with a curveball both sharp and reliable. He even threw a few changeups.

"The rest of it," his catcher, Buster Posey, said, "kind of speaks for itself."

A 117-pitch, 84-strike shutout. The first World Series shutout in 11 years, the first without a walk in almost 30. The first World Series shutout for the Giants in 52 years.

Bumgarner has a 1.13 ERA in this postseason. (AP)
Bumgarner has a 1.13 ERA in this postseason. (AP)

The Giants won 5-0. They lead the series, 3 games to 2. Everybody now goes to Kansas City, where the best thing the Royals have going for them is they might be done with Bumgarner, unless the Giants need him in relief.

For the moment, what Bumgarner leaves behind is an 0.29 World Series ERA over 31 career innings. No pitcher with at least 25 World Series innings is better. In 47 2/3 innings over six starts this postseason, Bumgarner has a 1.13 ERA. He has won four of those starts. The Giants have won five of them. Because of that, in large part because of him, the Giants are a win from their third World Series championship in five seasons. Twenty-five days ago, he shut out the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh in the wild-card game, ensuring the Giants would have the rest of October to play.

He was asked Sunday night if this was him in his zone, that special place where everything slows down but, presumably, his fastball. He'd struck out eight Royals. He'd allowed four hits. One of them reached second base, with one out in the fifth inning, and then he struck out the next two.

"I really felt like I did most of the postseason," he said. "I've been feeling pretty good and been able to work both sides of the plate. That is the key, being able to throw strikes on both sides and getting ahead of guys, moving the ball around, staying out of the hitter's counts. And that's it."

Pressed, he said, "I'm just happy we won."

Juan Marichal, the Hall of Fame right-hander, was in the clubhouse postgame. He called Bumgarner "cold-blooded."

"He dominates," Marichal said.

And Posey, the catcher who doesn't come off as the mirthful type, smiled and almost laughed at the depth of Bumgarner's Bumgarner-ness. For a lot of the afternoon, the clubhouse television had been on, and Giants players came and went, some watching, some not. Bumgarner sat in his chair before his locker and could hear the pre-game analysts prattle on about what a stud he was, about how he'd pitched himself to an elite place, about how this was one of the great postseasons they'd ever seen from one man.

That's a lot to hear.

"And then he goes out and throws a complete-game shutout," Posey said.

At 7:59 pm, the same four guys trudged the 100 feet or so from the dugout to the bullpen – such as it is – along the left-field line. At the same time, Bumgarner strode through the center of the infield. The crowd cheered. He would pitch the ninth inning. The people chanted, "MVP! MVP!" He'd thrown 107 pitches, which isn't necessarily a lot, but maybe manager Bruce Bochy had some ideas about Game 7, if there were one.

So Bumgarner went one way and the same four guys – closer, coach, catcher and catcher protector – went the other.

The first hitter, Alex Gordon, was out in two pitches. Casilla, the closer, threw lightly. The second hitter, Lorenzo Cain, was gone in two pitches, as well. Casilla stood on the grass in front of the mound.

"I knew I'm not pitching tonight," Casilla said. "No, no. This, I knew. I think Bochy knew that too."

Eric Hosmer, Bumgarner's 27th out, would grind through six pitches. Once, maybe twice, Casilla retreated to the top of the mound along the left-field line, and threw a fastball. Then he'd come down and stand in the grass again.

When Bumgarner threw a pitch, he'd rock forward on his toes, expecting to return to the dugout. Hayes did, too. Hayes was counting pitches, not because he thought there was any significance to them, but because Bumgarner had been so good, he wanted to see how quickly he would end it.

The final pitch, a slider, was perfect again. Hosmer rolled it to third base. The bullpen began to empty, for the last time in 2014. Posey rushed to the mound and hugged Bumgarner. Behind them, Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Belt soared for a high-five. The ball dude gathered his stuff. The other guy stood facing the crowd, his arms folded, his helmet still affixed to his head.

The little patch of bullpen – such as it is – had retaken its place as the least interesting place on the field. It could thank Madison Bumgarner for that.