Future Classic: Old school meets new style in Royals-Giants World Series
Like the heavy pendulum of a longcase clock did the 110th World Series swing. Back and forth it wagged, not just between the Royals and the Giants, between the Missouri plains and the California coast, between Trillin and Ginsberg and between the foolish and the wise, but also between the past and the future of baseball.
The past was easy to see, especially if you happened to be in the San Francisco clubhouse Sunday night after the Giants won Game 5, 5–0. Standing there as resplendent as royalty, crowned by his Giants cap and proud as a grandfather, was the dapper Juan Marichal, the greatest pitcher in San Francisco history, a man who from 1960 through '75 won 243 games and completed 244. But for all his lineage, the great Marichal — he had a 1.50 ERA in two October starts, in an era of many fewer playoff rounds — wasn't the greatest postseason pitcher in the room. That sobriquet belonged to 25-year-old Madison Bumgarner, who in a gem straight out of Marichal's mid-century heyday, if not even deeper into antiquity, had just handcrafted the first World Series shutout in 11 years.
"One month [in 1963], my manager, Al Dark, said to me, 'This month, we have no relievers,'" Marichal recalled. "So for a month, I finished [almost] every game. I won [five] games without relief in one month.
"In those days, it was almost mandatory that if you started, you were expected to finish. Today, it's not. These guys are worth too much money. They can't take a chance of hurting someone, so you see pitchers go six innings. But today, when I came here, I knew we were going to win, because that man is on the mound."
Bumgarner threw a game for the ages — the first Series shutout ever with no walks and as many as eight strikeouts. He leaped onto the October Rushmore of pitchers, with a 0.29 World Series ERA that put him at the head of a line that also includes Mariano Rivera (0.99), Christy Mathewson (0.97), Sandy Koufax (0.95), Sherry Smith (0.89), Babe Ruth (0.87) and Harry Breechen (0.83) as the only men with sub-1.00 ERAs in more than 30 innings in the Fall Classic.
You almost wanted to shake the fog from your head and blink the mist from your eyes. Carrying a workload hardly seen for ages — in his 39th start and 265th inning of the year — Bumgarner retired Eric Hosmer on a ground ball for the last out as if it were early springtime, having set down the last nine batters he faced. "Watching that last inning," San Francisco reliever Jeremy Affeldt said, "you start thinking this is the kind of game where someday you're going to say to people, 'Let me tell you about this one guy I played with...'"
"I went out there and expected more than just a shake of the hand," said catcher Buster Posey, "just because it was so special. I thought he'd jump up or something. But that's Bum. It was historic, but you wouldn't know from his reaction."
Tick-tock went the Series. In games Bumgarner started — he also won Game 1, 7-1, leaving six outs to the bullpen only because the game was one-sided and relievers needed work after five off-days — the glory days of workhorse October aces were back. On every other day, it was the future of baseball on display: a parade of wickedly hard-throwing relievers deciding games after inconsequential starters packed up their forgettable warmup acts. The other seven starters in the Series went 1-4 while averaging just 4 2/3 innings per outing. It was the same story all postseason. Bumgarner went at least seven innings in all six of his starts and won four of them. In 54 pitcher starts entering Game 6 of the World Series, the rest of baseball managed only 11 seven-inning stints and won just two of them.
In the World Series, the starting pitchers not named Bumgarner spoiled as if stamped with the same expiration date. The three games between his starts swung at the same point: the sixth inning, after starters couldn't handle a lineup as it turned over for a third time through. Kansas City took Games 2 and 3, first with a five-run sixth when San Francisco starter Jake Peavy went poof, and then with a two-run sixth when Tim Hudson fizzled. The pendulum swung the other way in Game 4, when the Giants scored three times in the sixth off the Kansas City bullpen after starter Jason Vargas, like clockwork, had his third-time-around undoing in the fifth.
Such non-Bumgarner games augur a specialized future: a growing inventory of hard throwers that allows managers to use more pitchers in shorter bursts more often. For instance, the Royals won Game 2 with four pitchers combining to throw 94 pitches at 95 mph and above, including the first trio of relievers in history to post regular-season ERAs below 1.50 in more than 60 innings (Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland). In non-Bumgarner games, the Giants used an average of five relievers per night. No wonder it's harder to get a hit in today's game than at any time in the past 41 years.
The lack of length from starters and the multiple-choice options in bullpens helped make the Series a second-guesser's delight. As chess masters seek to control the middle of the board, so did Royals manager Ned Yost and his counterpart, San Francisco's Bruce Bochy, seek to control the middle innings. Each was cast as a fool when choices didn't pan out and a genius when they did, with almost no consideration for the ocean of gradation between extremes. Of such drastic criticism, Yost said, "I'm not a dope, but I'm not the smartest guy on the face of the earth either. So I just let all that go."
"I like these games, I really do," Bochy said after San Francisco's 11-4 Game 4 win consumed four hours and saw 16 players used just in the ninth spots in the two batting orders. "You definitely have to be more creative."
Watching Bochy work that game was like watching an artisan put back together a porcelain vase that had tipped onto a marble floor. (His failed starter du jour, Ryan Vogelsong, lasted just eight outs.) Bochy thrives in the postseason environment, having led San Francisco to a 33-13 postseason record since 2010, in great part because he is so adept at the pachinko game that is modern bullpen usage.
Yost, like Bochy a former backup catcher from the 1980s, managed the first postseason of his unlikely career. After being discarded by baseball at age 30 — he was sent home by the Montreal Expos in April 1986 with a .212 batting average in 219 games — Yost got a job with a timber company in Mississippi. Each day, he would mark trees, supervise cuts and run timber cruises, in which he and his colleagues would take sample measurements to estimate the standing timber in a forest. He was happy with the job. Then one day, his wife welcomed him home after work by casually mentioning a phone call.
"Somebody called you today," she said. "Somebody named Hank Aaron."
Yost laughed, and paid no more attention to it.
The next day there was another phone call. This time Yost was home.
"Hello, Ned?" said the voice on the other end. "This is Hank Aaron."
Aaron was director of player development for the Braves at the time, not to mention the all-time home run king. He needed an old hand to help tutor his young arms in Greenville, S.C., home of the Braves' Double A team. Yost would catch the games, but his primary responsibility would be to coach the kids. Yost had never met Aaron — had no idea then or even today how Aaron thought about him for the job in the first place. Yost had never thought about coaching, but decided he would try it. "To see if I would like it," he said. "I figured, What the heck? If I didn't like it, I could go back to the [timber] job."
In Greenville, he noticed why Aaron valued these kids. It was 1986, and the team had 10 pitchers who would work in the big leagues, including a future Hall of Famer, Tom Glavine. Yost was hooked.
Twenty-eight years later, Yost accomplished something 11 managers hadn't been able to do since 1985: He took the Royals to the World Series. And when it happened, Aaron called again.
"Hank," Yost said, "I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for you."
"Well, you sure haven't let me down," Aaron said.
Both teams benefited from such a confluence of good fortune in reaching the World Series that it was too soon to know if the Royals and the Giants have real staying power. After all, this was the first Fall Classic in a full season in which neither team won 90 games. Kansas City posted the seventh-best record in baseball, and the Giants clocked in at a tie for eighth. The Royals blew a three-game August lead in the AL Central and survived a Wild-Card Game in which it trailed Oakland ace Jon Lester by four runs while down to their last five outs. Said Yost, "For the past two years, we've been trying to let this team know it's a good team, a championship team. It was not until we were down four runs in that game that they really believed it. It was that sudden. They decided they weren't going to go home. It happened just like that."
The Giants blew a 10-game lead in the NL West so badly that they benefited from not having a shot at the division title in the last week of the season. Trailing the Dodgers — who won the division by six games — by so much enabled San Francisco to line up Bumgarner for the Wild-Card Game at Pittsburgh, where he threw the first of his bookend postseason shutouts.
The Giants know better than any franchise the difficulty of consistent winning in today's game. They won the World Series in 2010 on the strength of their young starting pitching, finished eight games out the next year when Posey broke his leg in a home plate collision, won again in 2012 with a highly improbable 6-0 record in postseason elimination games, then fell back to a losing record last year when its non-Bumgarner starters struggled. Tick-tock, tick-tock. It's the to-and-fro of modern baseball.
What the Royals and the Giants did exhibit in the Series is an offensive approach that may indeed be the way forward for future champions. Both teams are stocked with high-contact, athletic hitters who put the ball in play to all fields, a counterattack to the high-velocity bullpens and sophisticated defensive shifts that have wrought games with more strikeouts and fewer hits.
After Sunday's game, San Francisco had scored 18 times in the postseason on non-hits, including seven times on what third base coach Tim Flannery calls RTIs, or runs thrown in (wild pitches, bases-loaded walks, errors). Said first baseman Brandon Belt of the team's resourcefulness, "We changed a lot since the regular season. We put the ball in play more. We put men on base, just trying to get on for the guy behind you. It's been working. We seem to thrive doing it."
Belt, a pull-heavy lefthanded hitter, set up a run in Game 5 by confounding the Kansas City shift with the first bunt hit of his career. San Francisco was full of contradictions: a guy named Belt dropping a bunt, a big-bodied relief pitcher named Petit (Yusmeiro) coming up big with 12 scoreless postseason innings, a rookie second baseman named Panik (Joe) playing with preternatural calm, a Panda (Pablo Sandoval) playing third base as nimbly as a cat, and a team of Giants thinking small at the plate. Behold rightfielder Hunter Pence, a middle-of-the-order hitter who chokes up on the bat with one hand gloved and one hand bare. ("When I was a kid," he said, "they sold batting gloves for $5 for one and $20 for a pair. That was an easy decision, and I got used to it.") In Games 1 through 5, he batted a ridiculously good .545 on two-strike counts.
"Five years I've worked on this approach, especially in our [big] ballpark," said Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens of his charges' line-drive swings. "When I got here, this was a flyball-hitting, strikeout team. That doesn't play today. [Former manager and former Giant] Felipe Alou told me, ‘I can't do anything with strikeouts and pop-ups.' I always remembered that."
For three straight nights in San Francisco, neither team hit a home run. Tick-tock. Back to 1948 we went — the last time anybody saw three straight World Series games without a homer. But on each night, the Royals and the Giants still put on a thrilling display of what could be futuristic baseball. The tick-tock was time well spent.