I feel like I’ve been droning on about Madison Bumgarner in faux poetry for days now, but after racking my brain for all the other fantastic pitching performances I’ve seen in October and otherwise — Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Josh Beckett, C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Chris Carpenter — nothing compares to what this guy has pulled off.
What he accomplished in just this World Series is legendary, and just by the numbers. In three games, he threw 21 innings, gave up one run, one walk, struck out 17 and kept his ERA to 0.43 en route to two wins and his incredible five-inning save in Game 7. Factor in his entire World Series career, and the numbers get even more ridiculous: a 0.25 ERA, still only one run, five walks and 31 strikeouts over 36 high-intensity innings.
The numbers are for the historians and analysts, who will take into account the era in which Bumgarner pitched — one of pitch counts and controlled innings and proper rest between appearances — and place him among the greats like Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson and Sandy Koufax.
But we watched this in real time. We saw Bumgarner carry the Giants through the Wild Card game, control the Cardinals in the NLCS and then dominate the Kansas City Royals with ease in Game 1. He topped himself in front of a home crowd in Game 5, shutting them out and finishing what he started. And then, after a shaky start to his first batter, with just two days of rest after throwing those nine innings, he settled down, firing nails into the championship dreams of every Kansas City Royals player, coach and fan.
Recent high-profile relief appearances by aces always come with some sort of disclaimer, the fine print buried deep beneath the glory. Pedro Martinez’s six innings of no-hit baseball to stop the Cleveland Indians in Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS was an incredible feat for an injured pitcher, but he had been injured in Game 1 and hadn’t had the opportunity to dominate that heavy lineup for an entire series. Randy Johnson came in in relief after Curt Schilling — one October legend for another — but only needed to go 1.1 innings to close out the game and give the Arizona Diamondbacks a shot at the comeback in the 2001 World Series.
What Bumgarner accomplished, to come in and pitch five innings of scoreless relief, with only two hits, no walks and, until Alex Gordon’s single turned into a ninth-inning triple, no hope for the Royals, doesn’t have any recent precedent. Factor in his entire postseason, one of 52.2 innings pitched, six wins, only six runs allowed and 45 strikeouts, and it’s head-spinning.
And finally, there was the way he pitched. To call him cool would be to inadvertently suggest that he had some kind of obvious swagger out there on the mound. When he was pitching, he was emotionless, each pitch delivered exactly where Bustery Posey called for it to go, never a shred of doubt as to the outcome of this little exercise.
Watching him run out there and unblinkingly dominate such a frenetic team gave me shivers. There was a sense of disbelief as I watched this pitcher come in to the game after Jeremy Affeldt went above and beyond in putting out starter Tim Hudson’s fire, and do something that goes against every 21st century pitching book. If he had gone two innings and ceded the ball to Javier Lopez or Santiago Casilla, that would have already been the stuff of legend. But he stayed out there, and he just kept getting outs, never wincing, never frowning, never smiling, like an otherworldly being shipped to this planet to coldly turn prospective base runners into outs as quickly and efficiently as possible.
My leg started hopping and fists started clenching because, even without a true rooting interest in this World Series, I wanted to see him finish the job and rewrite the history books. How often does blinding greatness present itself like this?
When Salvador Perez popped up a foul ball to Pablo Sandoval to end the game, Bumgarner seemed pleased. Posey raced out to the mound, Hunter Pence came screaming in from right field, Sandoval was bellowing. Bumgarner was content, and at least visibly, not much more emotional than that. Job well done, season saved, legend secured.
I don’t know if that’s understating it, and I won’t begin to understand how it felt to cement an entire legacy as a 25-year-old. But I will sit back and enjoy it. I may never see anything like this again.