SAN FRANCISCO -- It was nothing more than interesting pregame conversation for Giants manager Bruce Bochy on Friday afternoon, a few hours before Game 3. Just wondering, Bruce, any possibility of starting your best pitcher, Madison Bumgarner, on three days’ rest in Game 4?
“Well, sure, we talked about it,” Bochy said. “I mean, we discuss everything, our options. That would be an option. As I said, we have really ridden this guy pretty good. Doesn't mean he won’t do it or can’t do it.”
In other words, it was yes, sure, maybe; probably not, but possibly. But what was once just a fun topic to kick around became harsh reality for Bochy and the Giants hours later, after they dropped a 3-2 decision to Kansas City that put them behind in a series for the first time this postseason.
Bumgarner has been pretty much a playoff superhero, not just in this postseason, but also in 2010 and ‘12. In 2014, he’s 3-1 with a 1.40 ERA and 33/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his five postseason starts. He shut down the Royals for seven innings in Game 1, allowing just three hits and one run. He has lasted at least seven innings in each of his five postseason starts. The only other pitchers to have five starts of seven innings or more in a single postseason: Cliff Lee, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Greg Maddux, Orel Hershiser and the immortal Deacon Phillippe (in 1903).
So you can see Bochy’s temptation. After all, if the Giants go with Ryan Vogelsong as initially planned and lose, well, having to win three straight games, including Games 6 and 7 in Kansas City, is not the recommended way to bring home a World Series. Plus, Bumgarner is young (25) and strong, and it’s only one fewer day of rest. But did any of that sway Bochy postgame?
“Vogelsong’s going tomorrow,” Bochy said, ending all speculation. “He’s done a pretty good job for us, so he’s going to have his start tomorrow. There is a confidence we have in Vogey.”
This is one of the decisions on which a World Series turns, on which a manager’s legacy is either burnished or tarnished. Bochy hasn’t made many wrong moves in the Giants’ three World Series runs, but he is putting his growing reputation as a postseason genius on the line here.
In some ways, the decision to stick with Vogelsong goes against Bochy’s pattern of seizing the moment, of recognizing that sometimes major moves need to be made early. The bolder choice would be to start Bumgarner in Game 4 and worry about the rest later. But there’s a difference between a bold move and a desperate one, and Bochy knows where the line is drawn.
Teams that have used starters on short rest in the postseason are 52-64 since the playoffs were expanded with the wild card in 1995, but he is more concerned with his own player’s future. Bumgarner, whose previous season-high in innings was 223 1/3 in 2012, has thrown 256 innings this year, which is already the kind of workload that pitchers rarely if ever undertake anymore. He would be at 270 if Bochy rode him for seven innings in Games 4 and 7. The Giants have to concern themselves not just with this series, but also with their young ace’s arm. Bumgarner has also never started a game on less than the normal four days’ rest.
Despite that, there was a pregame rumor floating around that Bumgarner had gone to Bochy and demanded to pitch Game 4. The left-hander shot that down after the game. “I would never say anything like that,” he said.
No, Bumgarner trusts in Bochy, and Bochy trusts in Vogelsong, which takes some guts, since Vogelsong lasted only three innings against the Cardinals in his lone NLCS start, surrendering four runs and seven hits. The Giants cannot afford that kind of shaky beginning on Saturday, because falling behind against the Royals, with their shutdown bullpen, is almost certain doom.
If Vogelsong does struggle early, Bochy is certain to turn to Yusmeiro Petit, who has been a lifesaver in long relief during the postseason. That sounds like a good plan, but it had better work, because the Giants suddenly have very little margin for error.
Give Bochy this: He seemed as calm about discussing the choice after the game as he had been before it. This is a manager who knows his team, has his reasons and doesn’t agonize over decisions. “I’ll sleep fine when my head hits the pillow tonight,” he said. “Well, I may lose a little sleep over this game, but not over that decision.”
You get the feeling Bochy won’t lose sleep even if it backfires, and he shouldn’t. His reasoning is solid, no matter the result. He left AT&T Park on Friday regretting the things that had gone wrong in Game 3, but knowing that his decision about his ace simply felt right.