PITTSBURGH — The San Francisco Giants sprayed champagne in their clubhouse after their Wild-Card win, which was a lot of fun and utterly ridiculous. Champagne? For that? This franchise won two of the last four World Series. Does Warren Buffett set off fireworks every time he finds a good coupon? But there were the Giants, spraying each other and goofing around, except for the guy in the middle of it all, the one most responsible for popping the cork.
Oh, sure, Madison Bumgarner did pour a few beers in the general direction of his mouth, all at once. But mostly he half-heartedly sipped a Budweiser, looking and acting like he just beat the Marlins in early May. He was one of the last Giants still wearing his uniform top, and he looked like he could go another three or four innings. Heck, he looked like he wanted to go another three or four innings.
Bumgarner didn’t just shut out the Pirates. He deflated them. He needed only 109 pitches to finish his shutout. Don't be fooled by the 8-0 final score — this was a magnificent high-pressure performance. As fellow starter Jake Peavy said, "It wasn't like we scored early."
The Giants did not score until the fourth inning, when Pirates starter Edison Volquez faced the kind of challenge that Bumgarner avoided for almost the whole game: Two men on, nobody out, 3-2 count to Brandon Belt. Catcher Russell Martin went out to talk to Volquez, but in his haste he apparently forgot to say "Don't throw the next pitch three feet above the strike zone." And that's what Volquez did, give or take a foot. Ball four. Then Volquez missed with an off-speed pitch to Brandon Crawford, who pounded it over the rightfield wall for a grand slam.
Bumgarner didn't miss, at least not much. Through four innings, he threw 45 pitches. The only good news for Pirates fans was that they were already wearing black.
Some of Bumgarner's greatness hinges on deception in his windup, but a lot comes from the fact that he himself is never fooled. Big stage, big lights, who cares? It's just baseball. Bumgarner grew up on a farm in North Carolina. When the Giants' season ends, he will go back to a farm in North Carolina. He pitches like a guy who doesn't give a damn what anybody thinks. He locates his fastball and gets his slider working and blows snot rockets that get caught on TV, and that's that.
"He's got a lot of redneck in him," said fellow Giants starter Tim Hudson, who also has more than the average share of country in him, as long as we're on the topic. "That's a good thing. He ain't scared of nothing. It don't matter what the situation is, who's at the plate, who we're facing … he thinks he's the best out there, and he is."
A stereotypical ace is all smoke and fury on game days. Don’t talk to him. Don’t poke the monster. Bumgarner is not like that. He thinks that having too much adrenaline is a waste of energy, and a pitcher who wants to destroy opponents will probably beat himself. Hudson says if you watch Bumgarner at 5 p.m., you won’t even be able to tell if he is pitching that night.
"If [you] get amped up, you get away from making pitches, and you're challenging guys and leaving balls over the middle," Bumgarner said. "It's fun to get excited and amped up for it, but you're more effective when you don't."
Said Hudson: "He never changes. He is even-keeled every day. What you see is what you get."
What you get is one of the few pitchers in the game who can take the mound against Clayton Kershaw and honestly expect to out-pitch him. No, Bumgarner is not quite as good as Kershaw. But he believes he is. This is why Giants manager Bruce Bochy did not hesitate to tap him for this season-deciding game on the road.
Bumgarner has grown into the job of ace, and he looks like he will hold it for a while. In August, he turned 25. In September, he plunked Dodgers star Yasiel Puig in the leg, barked at him to get up, threw his glove aside when Puig did get up, then smacked a home run over him. And on the first day of October, he went on the road and mowed down a Pirates team that finished fourth in the National League in runs.
He was asked about pitching once in the five-game series with the Nationals, and he said, "Who says I'm only pitching once?" Well, the schedule would seem to dictate it, but Bumgarner doesn’t care much about that either. The "redneck" is the most valuable October weapon there is: A pitcher who wants the ball in any situation, who is capable of shutting down every team.