KANSAS CITY, Mo. — One day after he pitched NLDS Game 3, a rare loss to Washington in which he allowed just two earned runs in seven innings, Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner kept bugging manager Bruce Bochy in the dugout during Game 4 to let him work out of the bullpen.
"I can get [Adam] LaRoche!" Bumgarner would tell him, only to come back moments later and say, "I can get [Bryce] Harper!"
On the day after he beat St. Louis on 112 pitches in NLCS Game 1, Bumgarner told me, "I feel great, like I could go out and pitch again tonight."
Bumgarner, 25, is now 38 starts and 256 innings into this season, and the scary takeaway for the Kansas City Royals is that he shows absolutely no signs of wearing down. Bumgarner threw his fifth gem of this postseason in five starts, amid the Giants' 11 games this month, over 21 days against three different teams. He locked down the previously undefeated-for-October Royals by throwing three-hit, one-run ball over seven innings in a rare 7-1 breather for San Francisco in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night.
Bumgarner set down 13 of his last 14 batters, a streak interrupted by a Salvador Perez home run, which also snapped his record 39 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings in postseason play on the road.
"He's country strong," Bochy said. "We watch him, like we did with Timmy [Lincecum] years ago, and just like Timmy, there are no worries about his workload. He doesn't show any signs. It's really a tribute to the work he puts in. He's very diligent about his work between starts. He never misses a workout."
If they can't find a way to beat Bumgarner, who next looms in a potential Game 5, the Royals will have to find four wins in five non-Bumgarner games to win this series. That makes Game 2 in Kansas City tonight, in which Yordano Ventura will go against San Francisco's Jake Peavy, just one level down from "must win" on the International Importance of the Game Scale.
Bumgarner's four-seam fastball/cutter combination is so good that sometimes he can shut down a team by keeping more than 80 percent of his pitches in a tight window of about five miles per hour, from 88 to 93. But what he did last night was to show how he keeps improving as a pitcher. Not only can Bumgarner comfortably work both sides of the plate now, but also he can add and subtract velocity off his two breaking balls, making the cutter look like a slider at 83 mph and flipping his curveball for strikes as slow as 67 mph. He showed an inventiveness not normally associated with his attacking, stubborn style.
Bumgarner is one of nine Giants who have been part of three World Series runs in the past five years, but his fellow rotation mates in this era have worn down from the stress and duty of consistently pitching deep into season. Lincecum is mired in the San Francisco bullpen, unused this entire postseason, and Matt Cain is off the active roster because of surgeries to his arm and ankle.
Bumgarner, the widebody lefty, looks built for not just October, but also for the long haul. He lowered his career postseason ERA to 2.54, including an all-time low 0.68 on the road. He has thrown five games this postseason of at least seven innings, one such start away from tying the record set by Curt Schilling in 2007. And get this: Bumgarner won his third World Series game, becoming the youngest pitcher with three wins in the Fall Classic since Babe Ruth won for the third time in 1918 at age 23.
Back in 2007, when Bumgarner was 17 at South Caldwell High in Hudson, N.C., he committed to pitch at North Carolina. Also part of that incoming freshmen recruiting class were Rick Porcello and Matt Harvey. Only Harvey wound up at UNC. The Tigers drafted and signed Porcello. The Giants, with the 10th overall pick, drafted and signed Bumgarner.
The next year, after his first spring training, Bumgarner was assigned to A ball in Augusta, Ga. The coaches in spring training had taken one look at his sweeping, long-armed delivery — it's the butterfly stroke of pitching — and told him he couldn't pitch like that in pro ball. He had to throw without being so closed off to the hitter, and without swinging his arm so far behind him.
"I went to Augusta and tried it that way for three starts," he said. "I don't want to say I was terrible, but I wasn't very good. I couldn't do it the way they wanted. So finally I just said, ‘Enough,' and after those three starts I went back to the way I've always thrown. I guess it worked out okay. They haven't tried to change me since."
2. Big Game Letdown
The real Big Game James Shields was buried in Missouri. No, I'm not talking about the righthanded ace of the Kansas City Royals, whose Game 1 start wasn't that bad.
Eighty miles from Kauffman Stadium, in Carrollton, Mo., and for the past 135 years, rests James Shields, the only person to serve as a United States senator for three states and a hero who was a brigadier general in the Mexican-American and Civil Wars. The original Big Game James Shields also once challenged Abraham Lincoln to a duel. When the taller Lincoln chose the broadsword as the weapon of choice, and showed off his advantage in reach, Shields thought better of the challenge and made peace with Abe. At least he didn't suffer the loss.
The Royals' James Shields earned his Big Game nickname in the minors as a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers and Big Game James Worthy. The moniker rings hollow after yet another poor start in the postseason. It turns out it was too much to ask a pitcher whose best pitch is the changeup to be sharp while pitching Game 1 of the World Series on 10 days of rest. It was reminiscent of Jeff Francis flopping for the Rockies on 12 days of rest in the 2007 World Series opener (four innings, six runs) and Doyle Alexander for the Yankees on 20 days of rest in the 1976 World Series opener (six innings, five runs).
In 30 career starts with six or more days of rest, Shields now is 7-14 with a 4.82 ERA — more than a run higher than his career ERA. But his troubles in October go deeper than Tuesday's game. He has made 10 postseason starts in his career and posted a 5.73 ERA. Only two pitchers in baseball history ever posted a worse ERA with at least that many postseason starts: Jaret Wright (7.77 ERA in 10 starts) and Tim Wakefield (6.45 ERA in 11 starts).
The turning point for Shields happened quickly. One strike away from getting out of the first inning with the score 1-0, Shields couldn't put away Hunter Pence. He doubled up on fastballs to Pence — a rusty Shields still had yet to find the feel for his changeup — and left the second one over the plate. Pence drilled it over the centerfield wall. Now it was 3-0 for Bumgarner, which might as well have been 30-0.
Shields was so shaky that Kansas City manager Ned Yost was asked after the game if he planned to stick with Shields in Game 5. Of course, Yost isn't going to yank his ace from the rotation. It's easy for Shields and the Royals to write off Game 1 as just too many days of rest for Shields to be sharp, while Bumgarner, staying on his regular turn, continues to be dominant. Shields could very well bounce back with a gem in his next start.
The original Big Game James Shields is honored with four statues: two in Carrollton, one at the U.S. Capitol Gallery, and one in the Minnesota State Capitol. This James Shields may not be getting a statue at Kauffman Stadium, but what the Royals need from him is to keep them in a game against Bumgarner the next time around.
3. News and notes
• Candid admission before Game 1 from Yost, who was fired in a pennant race in Milwaukee in 2008 for being too uptight and who has taken on criticism in Kansas City: "I think I've learned to allow my players to be themselves. Early on in my career, I tried to mold them to be just like me. The last two years, I've let the free-spirit guys be themselves, and we have a lot of them. And I have great coaches. I listen a lot more to them than I did in years past." Just one more example why I like managers on their second job, after they've learned from their mistakes. No matter how this turns out, this will make nine straight World Series champions in which the winning skipper was on at least his second job.
• Give the Royals' front office credit for seeing that pinch-running specialist Terrance Gore could be a postseason weapon. In mid-summer, they bumped him from A ball to Double A and then to Triple A specifically to groom him for the possibility of impacting the postseason. "I don't know who's faster, Gore or Billy Hamilton," said Royals bench coach Don Wakamatsu of the Cincinnati Reds' noted rookie speedster.
• The Giants give away next to nothing. They are now 31-6 in the postseason under Bochy when they don't allow an unearned run.
• Keep this in mind when you watch Game 2 tonight: Kauffman Stadium was the only ballpark in the majors this year that saw more stolen bases than home runs.
• After Gregor Blanco drew his second bases loaded walk of the postseason, San Francisco has now scored six runs in the past seven games on RTIs (Runs Thrown In). Two came on bases loaded walks, two on errant throws and one each on a wild pitch and a throwing error. Blanco has been at-bat for four of the six RTIs.
• One more note from Travis Ishikawa's pennant-clinching home run in Game 5 of the NLCS: Jeremy Affeldt was the winning pitcher for the Giants after throwing one pitch. He set a record for fewest pitches for the winning pitcher of a postseason clincher, beating the old mark by one, from Junichi Tazawa of Boston in the 2013 ALCS.