KANSAS CITY – You just never know what you’re getting into at the World Series. Especially if it goes to Game Seven. After all, we spent pretty much all of October hearing the Royals had the best bullpen on either side of the Mississippi. And there’s no doubt their three-headed entry was terrific.
What we didn’t know was that the Giants had a relief ace nobody could have imagined.
A day later and with the benefit of a limited night’s sleep prior to an early-morning trip to an airport across the border in Kansas, the conclusion remains inescapable.
What happened Wednesday night in Kauffman Stadium was one of a handful of great pitching performances in the history of baseball. Given the modern game’s insistence on pitch counts and rest to preserve the arms of big-money players, it might be the best one of them all.
You can argue about Jack Morris, circa 1991. Or Sandy Koufax in 1965. Or even Randy Johnson’s relief inning in Game Seven in 2001 the night after he started and won Game Six. But think about what Madison Bumgarner did in this World Series as a whole, not just in Game Seven.
He cuffed the Royals in the opener, giving up only a meaningless home run to Salvador Perez when he already had a 7-0 lead. He blanked them in Game Five and clearly set himself up for an inning, maybe two, in relief in Game Seven.
At least that was the thought. No one could have envisioned this.
Five shutout innings. Five! Two hits, no walks. It was mastery, with 50 of his 68 pitches going for strikes.
“I’m as amazed as you are,” Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said over the clubhouse din after Wednesday’s 3-2 victory. “I’m just trying to coach him and help him and he doesn’t need much help. He’s a throwback kid.”
Royals manager Ned Yost had spent three days channeling his inner Joe Namath, proclaiming his team was in charge. He looked prescient calling a Game Six win when his team rolled to a 10-0 rout. He said he felt good before Game Seven too. Then Bumgarner came in with the Giants nursing a one-run lead.
The scenario soon became obvious to perhaps the most optimistic Royal of them all.
“Yeah, it was hopeless,” was Yost’s startling admission.
“Nobody has single-handedly beat somebody the way he did us,” said Royals designated hitter Billy Butler. “He separated himself. He went to a different level.”
Bumgarner gave up a leadoff single to Omar Infante in the fifth and then retired 14 straight batters. The innings got easier and easier. Catcher Buster Posey said he initially thought Bumgarner was going no more than three. But it soon became plainly obvious: This was his game.
“I was staying away from him every inning because I was hoping he wouldn’t go, ‘I’m starting to get a little tired,’ ’’ said manager Bruce Bochy, who likely punched a ticket to Cooperstown with his third title. “Because there’s no way I would have taken him out unless he would have told me that. We just got on his horse and rode it.”
It ended with Kansas City’s Alex Gordon 90 feet away from spoiling the narrative after a terrible gaffe in center field by Gregor Blanco. Perez sent a towering foul pop-up off third. Pablo Sandoval waited and waited until it nestled into his glove.
Between the mound and home, Posey and Bumgarner waited and waited too. They had been teammates since Class A ball and their celebratory embrace, captured in pictures sent around the world, was as genuine as you’ll see on a ball field.
“It’s a little bit of relief, a little bit of excitement combined,” said Bumgarner, who is a little bit thrifty with his words. “You’re just sitting there trying to figure out if it really just happened or not. But it was an awesome experience getting to be out there for the last out of Game Seven of the World Series.”
“I didn’t even see Pablo catch it,” Posey said. “I was looking at ‘Bum’ and it was such a special moment. We’re really close. We’ve come up together all the way from the bottom of the minors. And it was so cool to be able to share that moment with him.”
And for all the amazing numbers Bumgarner put up in this series and this month, consider how the Giants have him at a bargain rate. Bumgarner is pitching in the middle seasons of a five-year, $35-million extension he signed in 2012 that includes options through 2019. Bumgarner made just $3.75 million this season, a figure that only jumps to $6.75 million next year.
Compare the total value to the biggest contracts out there for pitchers. Clayton Kershaw is working on a $215 million deal and other big-names on mega contracts include Justin Verlander ($180 million), Felix Hernandez ($175 million), CC Sabathia ($161 million), Masahiro Tanaka ($155 million), Zack Greinke ($147 million), Cole Hamels ($144 million). Not much postseason success in that group.
Bumgarner, at just 25 years old, has already won three rings and holds the all-time record for the lowest ERA in the Fall Classic at 0.25.
How significant was it all? The Giants are just the second National League team ever – and the first since Stan Musial’s St. Louis Cardinals of the 1940s – to win the World Series three times in five years. They’ve been even-year locks and odd-year duds. I guess the folks by the Bay should start planning their 2016 parade right now.
“If it’s not a dynasty, you’re not going to get much closer than us,” Posey said. “We have great pitching, good defense, timely hitting, a great manager. We have guys who don’t quit. … With the parity in the game right now, three in five years is pretty special.”
Starting with his shutout in the wild-card game in Pittsburgh, Bumgarner threw 52∏ innings in the postseason, 4∑ more than any pitcher has ever thrown in one October. He gave up just 28 hits. His ERA was just 1.03. He pitched the first shutout in the World Series in 11 years, and tossed the first one ever with at least eight strikeouts and no walks.
But his career will forever be remembered by one night in the Midwest chill. Out of the bullpen. Stretching himself to limits no one thought possible.
“You know what? I can’t lie to you anymore,” Bumgarner said sheepishly to reporters as the clock approached a midnight that had already struck the Royals’ season. “I’m a little tired now.”