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Giants taking cautious approach with Bumgarner yet again

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- There were a few moments over the winter when Madison Bumgarner had to wonder if that whole World Series thing had been real.

"I definitely was sitting around thinking about it, how it didn't seem like it really happened," Bumgarner said. "It was pretty special."

That's a bit of an understatement. The 21-year old dressed as a Hall of Famer for Halloween: He started Game 4 of the World Series on October 31 and pitched eight shutout innings against the Texas Rangers, setting the table for the Giants clincher the next day.

The lanky, easygoing left-hander said he never felt nervous before that start -- "I knew I still had to be ready," he said -- but he concedes to that once that game was over it was "a big relief."

This spring training is relief for him, too. A year ago, Bumgarner's velocity mysteriously disappeared. Projected to spend his first full year in the majors, he struggled last spring and ultimately lost the Giants fifth starting spot to Todd Wellemeyer. He was alarmed that before he had even established himself in the major leagues, or could legally buy a beer he already seemed to have peaked.

"It wasn't a very fun time," he said. "I spent a lot of time thinking 'Well, I guess this is just how hard I throw now and I'm going to have to get people out a different way.'"

But the issue was mechanics. After working with pitching coach Dave Righetti in the spring and Triple-A pitching coach Pat Rice in Fresno to recalibrate his delivery, Bumgarner rediscovered his velocity and his confidence. He was called back up in late June and things clicked in shortly after his 21st birthday in August. The rest of season was storybook: He had a 1.13 ERA in the final month of the season and was named one of the Giants four postseason starters.

"I definitely don't think I could have done it on my own," Bumgarner said. "I never really knew anything about mechanics. I didn't know what I was doing, I'd just throw whatever the catcher put down."

"I'm thankful I went through it. Now I know more about what I'm doing. I can make adjustments quicker."

He proved that in a recent spring outing against the Oakland A's, when he realized things were slightly out of whack and he was able to make a change on the mound between pitches.

"I feel better than I've ever felt at this time of the year," said Bumgarner, though -- granted -- his comparison pool isn't exactly extensive.

But that's why neither Bumgarner nor the Giants seem overly concerned about his pitch count. He is one of the players in danger of succumbing to the Verducci Effect, a study done annually by SI's Tom Verducci that examines large increases in innings pitched by young pitchers and red-flags those who make the biggest jump as being at risk of arm trouble.

Bumgarner pitched a combined 212 2/3 innings last season, an increase of 73 innings, pushed higher by three rounds of the playoffs. The Giants are aware of the sizable jump and have said that they will watch over him.

Their biggest concession thus far to protecting Bumgarner is naming him the fifth pitcher in the Giants rotation. Embattled Barry Zito, who didn't even make the Giants postseason roster, will pitch fourth, ahead of Bumgarner.

By pitching Bumgarner fifth, the Giants will have the opportunity to skip him when they're concerned about his workload. In April, because of scheduled off-days the team's fifth starter will pitch just twice.

"If we need to give him a break, it'll be easy to do that," said manager Bruce Bochy when the Giants named the order of the rotation.

Concern about protecting Bumgarner was largely overlooked in the recent firestorm surrounding Zito. A newspaper report speculated that the struggling Zito could be dropped from the Giants rotation. But Zito pitches a lot of innings and has remained injury free. The Giants continue to need his presence in the rotation, to allow them more flexibility with their young star, who wowed the baseball world with his calm dominance on the game's biggest stage.

Aside from occasionally wondering if it really happened, Bumgarner didn't change after becoming a World Series champion. He spent his time off at home in Hudson, N.C., where his family roots run so deep that an area of Caldwell County is known as "Bumtown" because Bumgarners have lived there for so long.

When the town celebrity was out in a restaurant, everyone wanted to say hello.

"But it's a pretty small town, so I pretty much know everyone anyway," Bumgarner said.

Bumgarner didn't change his ways. He hung out with his wife, Ali, whom he married last Valentine's Day, giving her a bull calf as a wedding present. He did some hunting and some cattle roping.

Bumgarner competes in team roping for fun. When he lived for a time with teammate Jeremy Affeldt he practiced roping Affeldt's patio furniture. Since the lefty ropes with his right hand, he isn't concerned if it will have an impact on his arm, and he doesn't have any anti-roping clauses in his contract.

Mechanics in place, World Series championship achieved, Bumgarner is ready for his first full season with the Giants. There's only one thing left to do:

"I still feel I have to earn my spot," he said.

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