PITTSBURGH – The San Francisco Giants milled about their clubhouse Wednesday afternoon, engaging in the usual time-killing activities that are part and parcel of a baseball season, when an interloper interrupted. It was Madison Bumgarner, the Giants’ ace and starting pitcher in the National League wild-card game, and he just wanted to tell the clutch of relief pitchers they shouldn’t bother getting loose, because he planned on pitching all nine innings and sending the Giants into the National League Division Series. And that was that.
Bumgarner strolled off, like it was typical for a pitcher to stare at a game of such import with the nonchalance of a nihilist. Because for him, it pretty much is the norm, not arrogance as much as the personification of self-awareness.
“He just wanted to let us know,” Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt said. “He was being courteous.”
Not only is Bumgarner fully conscious of who he is – an unapologetic son of North Carolina who once gave his wife a cow for her birthday – he is at peace with his mound alter ego, a snarling, snot rocket-launching presence who at 25 years old is just realizing how great he can be.
Greatness, of course, comes in many forms. One could argue that a grown man chugging four cans of beer at a time, as Bumgarner did during the Giants’ raucous celebration late Wednesday night, constitutes a special sort of greatness. The more traditional definition belongs to what spurred the festivities: Bumgarner fulfilling his promise, twirling a dazzling nine innings and booking the 130th shutout in playoff history as San Francisco walloped the Pittsburgh Pirates, 8-0.
Over 109 pitches, Bumgarner struck out 10, allowed four hits, walked one and short-circuited a record PNC Park crowd of 40,629 that hosted a second consecutive wild-card game to far worse results than the first. Bumgarner played the culprit and spoiler for a Pittsburgh team that faltered following a fourth-inning grand slam by Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford. For the Giants, he was dream weaver and salvation, every bit the pitcher of his elite peers whose Q ratings are higher, if not their effectiveness.
“He don’t come with a lot of flair,” Giants starting pitcher Tim Hudson said, “but he goes out there and sticks it right up your butt.”
The anatomical impossibility of such a maneuver, not to mention the potential illegality, showcases Bumgarner’s ability to inspire the sort of hyperbole that only the elite can. And to call him anything else – anything short of the group that includes Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez and Max Scherzer and David Price and Chris Sale – would sell short the sort of pitcher Bumgarner has become.
For years, he toiled behind Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, an apprentice to their mastery, watching, waiting, learning and all the while picking up a pair of World Series rings with 15 shutout innings across two starts. Bumgarner said it almost came by accident, which may be the happiest accident since Fleming stumbled upon penicillin. “Pretty good for not knowing what he was doing,” Giants catcher Buster Posey said.
Now that he does, Bumgarner carves up lineups with fastballs and sliders, the former a pitch with which he could splat a fly if so instructed and the latter a mean, nasty biter, a shark in horsehide clothing. Stake him four runs in a game, as Crawford did Wednesday with his shot off Pirates starter Edinson Volquez, and the sentiment Bumgarner spread pregame found more and more adopters.
“After that ball went over the fence, game over,” Hudson said. “You’ve got Bum out there with a four-run lead. The way he was throwing the ball, I didn’t give a damn. We were going to spray some Champagne.”
Amid the celebration, Larry Baer, the Giants’ CEO, walked over to Bumgarner and said: “We’ve got three more of these, baby. Three more of these to go.” By which he meant NLDS, NLCS and World Series. The proclamation was bold, particularly with these Giants lacking the depth and talent of their NLDS opponent, the Washington Nationals, but then the same was said of their 2010 and 2012 teams, and Bumgarner’s jewelry is the finest counterargument to any lingering doubts about the Giants’ capacity to overcome something as seminal as ability.
This was Bumgarner’s 10th celebration in a career that hasn’t even reached its 150th start, the sort of ratio for which other pitchers would offer their souls to a horned creature, or perhaps a pinky. “It helped a lot, just being out there in the big games like that,” Bumgarner said. “Just knowing that you’ve been there before and knowing the success that we’ve had.”
It’s the sort worth recreating, the sort to which the Giants have grown so accustomed, which is why Bumgarner’s start Wednesday meant so much. In a one-game playoff like the wild card, there is little room for error and even less for grand slams. He yielded nothing outside of four measly singles and a walk to reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, and it gave the Giants ample room to josh about what Bumgarner didn’t do.
“I was looking for a home run out of him,” Giants first baseman Brandon Belt said. “I was a little disappointed. Step it up. Step it up.”
Certainly Belt will forgive him for his four outs at the plate considering the 27 Bumgarner helped create on the mound. Though they knew so already, this was the confirmation: Their kid, the one drafted in the first round and in the big leagues barely a month past his 20th birthday, had grown into a man. Long gone was the facial hair that couldn’t connect, replaced by a beard that hardens his face and gives gravitas when he sneers at hitters.
There is animus there, almost anger, and because Cain is out for the season with an elbow injury and Lincecum off to the bullpen due to ineffectiveness, he fills the chasm with his attitude. It is how he must be, how he must pitch, how he can walk into a room of his peers, announce he’s going to make history and not draw a single side-eye from the bunch.
Because they know. They know it’s innocent, and they know it’s honest, and they know it’s Bum. The 2.98 ERA and career-low walk rate and career-high strikeout rate this year speak to what Bumgarner has become: one of the best. Games like the wild card, though, say even more about what he can be: a man who backs words with deeds and relishes in shoving it where the sun don’t shine.