Sunday October 31st, 2010

ARLINGTON, Texas -- In Texas' visiting clubhouse, the lockers of the Giants' starting rotation are aligned in a row, and down that row the ball gets passed among four pitchers who have nothing and everything in common all at the same time.

Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner comprise San Francisco's entirely homegrown rotation of 20-something-year-old starters -- the first such wholly drafted and developed World Series rotation since the 1986 Red Sox trotted out Roger Clemens, Oil Can Boyd, Bruce Hurst and Al Nipper.

With a 2-1 World Series lead, the Giants now hand the ball to the lefty Bumgarner, the youngest (21) and biggest (6'4", 215) of the staff, to start Sunday night's Game 4 against the Rangers and their 24-year-old righty, Tommy Hunter.

"We have a pretty good scouting eye," San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean says, "and through development our pitching has become the gold standard and the foundation of the organization."

Sabean declined to speak in specifics about the organization's development plan, citing its proprietary nature, but the program in place has helped these four ascend through the farm system in no more than four years or 400 innings in the minor league ranks. In an age of coddling young pitchers, the Giants don't employ any notably strict pitch-count or innings limits, and still none of the four has had a significant arm injury. And all four are under team contractual control for at least two more seasons through 2012.

While Billy Beane, general manager of the A's, the Giants' Bay Area neighbor, has primarily drafted college pitchers, San Francisco has no such basic mold in mind.

"You're looking for talent first," says Dick Tidrow, the Giants' vice president of player personnel and a 13-year big-league pitcher. "You need to have a fastball that works, a breaking ball that works and something offspeed that works. [These four pitchers] are not all the same. They have different arm angles, different sizes, different heights, weights."

Bumgarner and Cain were picked out of high school; Lincecum was drafted out of a major college (Division I Washington) while Sanchez was selected out of an NAIA school, Ohio Dominican.

Cain, Lincecum and Bumgarner were first-round picks in 2002, '06 and '08, respectively, while Sanchez was a 27th-rounder in '04. Cain and Lincecum are the two right-handers. Because of their different styles, they only spend a moderate amount of time reviewing scouting reports together.

"We still look at guys and talk about what hitters like to do," Cain says. "Then, each of us has to figure out what works for them."

That they are products of the same minor league system doesn't mean that San Francisco's Fab Four have any more in common than their vagabond teammates in the lineup, expect for their success. They turned in four quality starts in the Giants' 3-1 NLDS win over the Braves, allowing just three earned runs in 29 innings. In the NLCS they turned in three more quality starts and had a cumulative 3.21 ERA, as they neutralized a potent Phillies lineup. Along with high-priced free-agent mercenary Barry Zito and under the watchful eye of pitching coach Dave Righetti, the Giants' starters ranked third in the majors with a 3.54 ERA during the regular season.

Lincecum, 26, is the lithe two-time Cy Young-winning ace with long brown hair. He's a 5'11", 170-pound, Mercedes-driving hipster nicknamed the Freak for his unusual mechanics and nontraditional pitcher's body type. A product of the greater Seattle area, his AT&T Park entrance music is MGMT's neo-psychedelic synthpop hit, Electric Feel. (Sample lyric: "I said ooh girl/Shock me like an electric eel/Baby girl/Turn me on with your electric feel.") In NLDS Game 1, Lincecum hurled a complete-game, two-hit shutout, striking out 14. Not bad for his postseason debut. He's 3-1 with a 2.79 ERA in 29 innings this postseason.

He so scared off scouts with his size and mechanics while in college that he was only selected in the 42nd round (by the Indians) after his junior year. But the more the Giants scouted Line cum, the more convinced Tidrow grew that he would be durable.

"I thought he had the best stuff in that draft," Tidrow says. "The mechanics didn't bother me that much because they were the same -- he could get to the same release point, he could do the same with the pitches. I had some reservation about his size, but our scouts watched what he did the day after he threw 150 pitches and he'd come out and throw long. It didn't look like it was hard for him to do what he was doing."

Lincecum's co-ace by performance, though not reputation, is the 26-year-old Cain. At 6'3", 245, the burly, stoic Southerner, born in Alabama and raised in Tennessee, cruises around in a diesel Ford pickup truck. He takes the mound at home to Brooks & Dunn's country hit, Hillbilly Deluxe. (Sample lyric: "Put on the smell good, put on Skynyrd/Head into town like a NASCAR winner/... Everywhere you look all you see is/Hillbilly deluxe, slick pick-up trucks.") Cain has thrown 21 1/3 innings without allowing an earned run, the third longest streak in history for a single postseason.

Cain and Bumgarner, given their similar Southern roots, have the most in common away from baseball. Cain says that they even have several of the same interests, including "trucks, deer hunting and roping" -- the latter is a skill that Bumgarner has recently tried teaching Cain.

Tidrow first saw Cain on a scouting trip he took right after spring training ended in spring 2002, during Cain's senior year at Houston High in Germantown, Tenn.

"I thought he was deluxe," Tidrow says. "I thought he was going to be a big-league starter, a power arm. I sent a lot of people back through, and they all felt the same."

Sanchez, 27, is the comparative old man of the playoff rotation. The left-hander from Puerto Rico was best known before this season as a starter of great potential -- realized in a 2009 no-hitter -- who was held back by his inconsistency. Even in his 2010 career season (13-7, 3.09 ERA), he led the majors in walks (96) while allowing the fewest hits per nine innings (6.6).

In Game 3 of the NLDS against Atlanta, Sanchez carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning, striking out 11 while giving up two hits and one run in 7 1/3 innings, not that most fans will remember that game for anything but the three errors committed by Braves second baseman Brooks Conrad, leading to the Giants' ninth-inning comeback win.

The Giants lucked into discovering Sanchez in college. Tidrow was in Ohio to scout Ohio State, but the game was rained out, so a scout brought him to an indoor workout at which Sanchez was throwing in a gym.

"He had a couple mechanical things that he did wrong," Tidrow says. "One of them was not get his foot down. Everything was still up in there and he was trying to throw. I worked with that a little and realized he was really a much better arm than the report says."

Come draft day, the Giants had a secret all to themselves, they thought.

"Our scout said we could take him very late," Tidrow says. "Then I heard 'Sanchez' went in that draft -- or something close to that name -- and it gave me the heebie-jeebies. So I drafted him immediately. I thought, 'Oh my God, somebody else knows him.'"

And then there's Bumgarner, the precocious rookie lefty from rural North Carolina who beat out Zito for the final playoff rotation spot with a stellar stretch run in which he had a 1.18 ERA over his final six starts. In Game 4 of the NLDS, the 21-year-old gave up only two runs in six innings as the youngest Giant to pitch in a postseason game and became the second-youngest pitcher of any team to win a series clincher.

"He was a big physical guy," Tidrow says of Bumgarner at South Caldwell High School. "Left-handed. Throws hard. He pitched inside, which is different than you normally see. He was ultra-competitive and very athletic for a big man."

In the 2008 draft the Giants picked 10th and, if the right hitter had fallen, would have selected a position player out of need.

"There were a couple of bats in that one, and you know, we need bats," Tidrow says. "After the bats went, we were on Madison."

Just two and a half years after drafting Bumgarner, the Giants have picked him again -- this time to take the mound in World Series Game 4 and carry the torch for the homegrown kids.

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