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Scintillating Bumgarner proves the ultimate World Series difference

In a tight World Series that went down to the final out, it was Madison Bumgarner who carried the Giants to their third title in five seasons.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Plans? Sure, the San Francisco Giants had plans. If starter Tim Hudson struggled, they wanted to use Jeremy Affeldt as a bridge to the fifth inning. Then they would put Madison Bumgarner in the game, and then … well, that was sort of the end of the plan. Two days earlier, he had thrown a 117-pitch shutout. Could Bumgarner pitch two innings on short rest? Three? One? Midway through Game 7 of the World Series, the Giants were winging it.

"We just didn’t know how long," Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said. "How in the hell do you know a guy can do something like that?"

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The Giants talked about having "all hands on deck," but in the end, they only needed one. Bumgarner took the ball in the fifth inning and never gave it up, lifting the Giants to a 3-2 Game 7 win. Five shutout innings, on two days rest, in the loudest World Series road environment you can imagine. Who can plan for that?

Manager Bruce Bochy yanked Hudson after 28 pitches. Affeldt carried the Giants through the fourth inning. Michael Morse had given the Giants a 3-2 lead with an RBI single, and then it was Bumgarner’s turn. The Giants knew their man.

After one MadBum inning, centerfielder Gregor Blanco thought, "OK, we got it. We got it already." Righetti told catcher Buster Posey: "You had a game plan for Huddy. You got another one now, because [Bumgarner's] staying in for a while."

Bumgarner was not just the World Series MVP. He was also, as teammate Brandon Belt said, "the MVP of the world out there." As much as any player in a generation, Bumgarner was the reason his team won the World Series.

By the time the World Series started, there were two kinds of games: The ones when Bumgarner pitched, and the others.

How great was he? In their four wins, the Giants needed 108 outs. Bumgarner recorded 63 of them. He gave up only a single run the whole series.

When the Giants ride in their third World Series parade in five years, they should all wear Bumgarner jerseys. They are not kidding themselves. In the clubhouse afterward, injured starter Matt Cain pointed to his teammates spraying champagne and said bluntly: "Without him, we wouldn’t be doing this."

How did this happen? How did a guy who probably won’t get a single Cy Young Award vote over Clayton Kershaw turn into one of the most dominant postseason forces in Major League history? How did he go from a 2.98 ERA in the regular season to 1.03 in the playoffs?

It started with failure.

The date was Sept. 23. The Giants trailed the hated Dodgers by 3 1/2 games with six to play. They needed a win in Dodger Stadium to stay alive in the division race, and Bumgarner could not deliver it. He gave up three home runs, and while he also hit a two-run homer off Zack Greinke, the Giants lost, 4-2.

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​Bumgarner was rushing. He wanted to beat the Dodgers so damn much that he tried to overpower them instead of pitch to them. Looking back, that loss propelled the Giants to the championship. If they had won the game, they probably still would have lost the division, but they might have used Bumgarner on the final day of the season to try to catch the Dodgers. Instead, they were able to save him for the Wild-Card Game against Pittsburgh, and perhaps most importantly, he was able to learn an important October lesson before October.

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"Focus," Righetti said. "His focus to make each pitch … everybody gets excited, grabs the ball, they’re feeling really good and they throw it. I swear to God, if you watch the tapes, it’s almost like he pitched the same speed the whole month."

After that Dodgers loss, Righetti talked to Bumgarner about using both sides of the plate and trusting his curveball. The curve became a strikeout pitch for him this month, and Righetti says, "That wasn’t always the case. He was willing to [throw] that in the toughest of circumstances."

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Every start brought more confidence; every calmly executed pitch was followed by another calmly executed pitch. By the time the World Series started, there were two kinds of games: The ones when Bumgarner pitched, and the others.

For 10 days, it was like the Giants and Royals were roped together — wherever one went, the other one followed. The Giants won the opener, 7-1, and the Royals won the next game, 7-2. The Giants won two of three in San Francisco and the Royals whipped them, 10-0, in Kansas City.

They were interchangeable, evenly matched and equally great, and the difference was Bumgarner. He was the reason the Giants celebrated on the field while a solemn man in a blue sport coat quietly walked down a Kauffman Stadium staircase. In that moment, it didn’t matter one bit that the man was George Brett. He was just another man in Kansas City who had his heart stepped on by Madison Bumgarner.

Bumgarner allowed a single run the whole Series; that came in Game 1, with the Giants leading 7-0. That run seemed meaningless at the time, and it basically was, except for how it happened: Salvador Perez hit a home run.

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And now here was Bumgarner on Wednesday, in the ninth inning of Game 7, with a man on third base, clinging to a 3-2 lead, needing one more out to win the World Series, and who was at the plate? Salvador Perez.

Bumgarner should not have been in this situation. It was Blanco’s fault, really. The normally steady center fielder had turned a single into an error and a trip to third base because he has these things called veins and blood and emotions, and sometimes they interfere with his head. With two outs in the ninth, Kansas City’s Alex Gordon hit a line drive toward center field, Blanco realized he could make the catch that could end the World Series and he went after a ball he would have left alone in July.

"As soon as I started going, I think to myself, 'You’re doing the wrong thing! You gotta stay back,'" Blanco said. But it was too late. The ball scooted past him, and Gordon ended up on third. The Kauffman Stadium crowd erupted like the Royals had won, the Chiefs had won and everybody was getting an enormous tax refund.

Bumgarner had thrown 62 pitches, more than anybody imagined he would throw, but from the bench, Righetti and Bochy saw he still had his velocity and control. Mostly, he still had his calm, his poise, the quality that kept him from making the kind of mistake that Blanco made. He forced Perez into a popout to third base. Pablo Sandoval caught it and fell to his back, a World Series champion yet again.

This World Series title sealed Bochy’s Hall of Fame induction, though that should have been ensured anyway. It may bring Sandoval back; he is due to hit free agency in a few days. It solidifies the Giants as the best team of this era, not just in championships won, but also in the old-fashioned sense of that word.

In the clubhouse afterward, starter Jake Peavy celebrated bigger and louder than anybody, even though he was arguably the worst performer in the whole World Series. And why not? He’s on the team, right? Posey said he wasn’t worried about Sandoval’s free agency right now, though he obviously wants him back because the best teams don’t let business interfere with pleasure.

Affeldt talked about how much it meant to have his wife Larisa by his side as he won a World Series in Kansas City. A decade ago, as a Royal, he was so beaten-down by injuries and failure that he sat at the kitchen counter of the home he owned here and cried.

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That was it, he told Larisa. He was quitting the game. She told him he had to keep going, that he would make it. She says now that he was just frustrated, and she doesn’t think he was really going to quit. But at the time, he sure felt like quitting. Now here he was, the winning pitcher in Game 7 en route to capturing his third World Series on the same mound that almost destroyed him.

These are the kinds of stories that pour out of a winning clubhouse along with the Budweiser and champagne. Bumgarner provided all the happy endings.

Belt: "He’s just a bad-ass, I guess." Posey: "I’m still amazed at how he just sits on the bench and just seems so calm. I guess when you’re as good as he is, it’s easy." Hunter Pence: "He is so calm that it leaks into you, so confident that it leaks into us." Blanco: "He’s not human. We gotta do something about this guy. We gotta take him to the doctor, I guess. I don’t know. It seems like he is a robot."

If anybody is thankful for Madison Bumgarner’s existence, his toughness, and his greatness, it is Blanco. Consider: If Bumgarner had thrown a wild pitch or given up a single to Perez, Blanco would have been an all-time World Series goat. That botched play in center field would have followed him around forever. Instead, nobody cares. Bumgarner made sure of it.

So when that last popup landed in Sandoval’s glove, Blanco was both excited and relieved. Confused, too. He thought, "OK, what do I do now? Should I run? Should I jump? Should I scream?"

He can’t help it. He is human. We can’t all be Madison Bumgarner.