NEW YORK — It was familiar. It was oh so familiar. The manager, that playoff Jedi Master, gazing out from the visitor’s dugout; the pitcher on the mound with that dead-eye stare into the place where opposing hitters go to die; the sight of these October zombies rearing their heads, once again: we’d seen this movie before, so many times, in fact, that by the end of this 2016 National League Wild Card game at Citi Field—a nail-biter that turned into a horror flick for the home fans—it seemed silly that when the night began we didn’t know how it would end.
With an obscure 29-year-old journeyman, playing in his first postseason game, hitting the game-winning home run off the other team’s closer? With an October ace improbably living up to his legend? With the Giants advancing to the next round after a 3–0 win over the Mets, setting the stage for the most compelling first-round series of the postseason? Really, there was no other possible ending to this movie.
At the end of the night, someone asked Madison Bumgarner what he thought about facing the Cubs—the mighty, swaggering, 103-win Cubs—in the next round.
“What do I think?” said MadBum, after extending his postseason scoreless streak to a preposterous 23 1/3 innings. “I like our chances.”
The game’s purists and the traditionalists—and plenty of players and managers when the tape recorder is shut off—still knock these one-game coin flip games like they are playoff games wrapped in glossy cheap plastic, but there is a weird beauty to these win-or-go home games that inject October with instant urgency. It starts with the nervous energy around the ballpark before the game: At Citi Field on a warm Wednesday you could feel that energy as fans spilled from the 7 train platforms and onto the parking lots just outside the gates, a sea of blue hats and orange hoodies and white SYNDERGAARD 34 jerseys. These wild-card games can feel closer to the amuse-bouche than the main course, but they are as tense as imaginable, with a wonderful clarity and edge to the proceedings: lose, and go home; win, and you’re in, with a real shot at winning the whole shebang. (Over the last five years alone, three World Series participants were wild card invitees.)
Through two games, the 2016 baseball postseason is off to a smashing start. Tuesday, two division rivals gave us a wonderful white-knuckle, extra-inning drama north of the border. Wednesday, we were given a pitching duel for the ages— for the first time since ’91, a scoreless duel through seven innings of a winner-take-all game. Fans had come to the red brick park in Queens for a ballgame, but it felt like a cage match. MadBum vs. Thor. The two scariest pitchers in the playoff field. Bumgarner, who is still just 27 but is already a playoff great, with a 2.14 ERA in 88 1/3 innings before this game and having already won three world championships through age 25. Syndergaard, a 6'6", 240-pound marvel, with the Norse God hair and the best pure stuff in baseball.
Ol’ MadBum, who stumbled late this season, entered the cauldron of brain-assaulting noise and thick October pressure and urgency, and dispatched the 87-win Mets with ridiculous ease. Really, there is not much to say about what Bumgarner did to the Mets, to improve to 8–3 with a 1.94 ERA in 15 games in his postseason career. Though it was a 0–0 game into the ninth, he was in no real danger from the first pitch. Syndergaard, who struck out 10 in seven shutout innings, was overpowering; Bumgarner was efficient. He threw just 21 pitches over the first three innings, and over nine he threw 119, 78 for strikes, while striking out six. Bumgarner has logged 23 innings in playoff elimination games, all 23 of them scoreless–a record. Ho-hum. On the team bus on the way to Citi Field, MadBum took a nap.
The man who took the air out of Citi Field, though, wasn’t Bumgarner. It was, in fact, Conor Gillaspie, with one ninth inning swing off Jeurys Familia. It is a strange thing, to hear 44,000-some fans go silent all at once. The Mets fans watched the ball and their season vanish over the rightfield wall, and having spent the night watching what Bumgarner was dealing, everyone in the ballpark knew: the Mets’ season was over.
“It was one of the best postseason games I've been a part of,” said Bochy, who has seen his fare share of postseason games.
The man knows: in October, anything can happen. The wild-card winner has gone on to waltz away with the World Series trophy five times over the last 15 years. Bochy and the Giants, who limped into the playoffs, know something about finding new life in the postseason: two years ago, Bumgarner shut out the Pirates in the wild-card game, and San Francisco rolled to their third title in six years.
Let’s be clear: this is not a perfect team, far from it. The bullpen that turned the second half of the regular season into a nightmare is still a mess. The offense—19th in the league in runs scored this season, lifeless until Gillaspie’s miracle swing—is still at times painful to watch. The rotation is deep, with Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, and Matt Moore behind the ace, and the manager in their dugout is already a borderline Hall of Famer, but still, you have to squint hard, really hard, to see the team that went 57–33 over the first half. But then again these are the Giants, crashing the postseason party. It’s happening. Again.
The Cubs await. The juggernaut Cubs, who finished with the best regular-season record in baseball—the best regular-season record in seven years. But what happens next is no sure thing: over the last 30 years, the team with the best record won the World Series just five times.
The big question when this postseason began was, Can anyone beat the Cubs?
In the aftermath of the NL wild card game, it’s this: How can you bet against Madison Bumgarner?
How on earth can you bet against the Giants in October?