ST. PETERSBURG – You’d be correct to assume that a pitcher is having a very good year when he’s 11-6 with a 2.69 ERA for a last-place club.
But Madison Bumgarner has given the Giants so much more than that.
A day after his 24th birthday, he battled without his best command, showed poise beyond his years and found a way to complete seven innings against a Tampa Bay Rays club that had the best record in the major leagues against left-handed starters.
It was the ninth consecutive start in which Bumgarner threw at least seven innings. And if that doesn’t sound eye-popping to you, maybe this will:
That’s something no Giants starter has done since 1988, when Rick Reuschel strung together 11 of those outings from Aug. 17 through the end of the season.
Bumgarner would enter the world, squalling, one year after “Big Daddy” had his big season.
Now Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper are seeing fit to call Bumgarner “Big Country.”
“I don’t … I don’t know if I like that,” Bumgarner said. “I’m not a big guy for nicknames.”
This is usually where Jeremy Affeldt weighs in with a suggestion.
“Bum?” Affeldt said. “He’s just … Bum.”
Bumgarner has been more than that.
“You know, it’s critical that you have one guy on your staff that allows you to rest the bullpen,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “He’s been our guy this year.”
The Giants aren’t used to solving innings deficits. Most of this season, they’ve been borrowing from one credit card to pay another. And they’ve paid enough penalties and interest, as their 49-59 record and last-place standing in the NL West will attest.
But Bumgarner has kept them from a total Chapter 11 scenario. And he’s even managed to go deep in games on nights when he doesn’t have his best stuff, on nights when he’s facing an especially dangerous lineup, or in the case of Friday night, both.
“That was a good hitting team, a good team all around,” said Bumgarner, who matched a season high with 11 strikeouts while holding the Rays to a run in seven innings. “Any time you battle through without the command you’re used to having, it makes it tougher. You’ll have games like that. It’s nice to work through them and give the team a chance to win.”
Would he have been able to do that a year ago?
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t think it would’ve been the same result. I feel I’ve improved a lot, learned a lot. I mean, every game, you’re either playing or watching. It’s right there for you.”
Talk to folks in the clubhouse or around the game and they'll tell you that Bumgarner is the quickest to be able to break down a hitter’s strengths or weaknesses. He’s the best at describing his plan of attack as he goes into a start.
It was pointed out to him that the 27 stolen bases against him last year were the most that any left-hander allowed in the majors. So he added a slide-step. He varied his times. He worked on his pickoff move.
He looked like Andy Pettitte while surprising Sean Rodriguez off first base in the second inning, nullifying one of the three walks he issued in the game. Opposing baserunners are just six out of 10 against him this season.
“He’s cut down the running game,” said Bochy, “and those peripherals are so important for a pitcher.”
So is stuff, and this might surprise you: Opponents are hitting .193 against Bumgarner. That’s tied for second in the NL, just behind the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw (.190) and tied with the Mets’ Matt Harvey.
That is some kind of company.
But you only need to get one look at Bumgarner to recognize what an elite presence he’s become.
“I'd never really seen him in person. I was very impressed, for a young man, with his pitching ability” said Rays manager Joe Maddon, “He knows how to elevate, how to get underneath a right-handed hitter. He could throw a strike. He had great poise. He was very good.”
Bochy’s praise was more direct: “That’s a man, I tell you. I’ve loved him from Day One.”
Bumgarner is not one for nicknames and he’s not one for stats, either. But he broke face when I mentioned the stat that links him to “Big Daddy.”
What year were you born?
When do you think a Giants starter last threw at least seven innings in at least nine consecutive starts?
Almost. 1988. What does that mean to you, that no Giants pitcher in your lifetime has contributed the amount that you've contributed over your last nine starts?
“A lot,” he said. “I don’t think about much of the other stats, but I think about innings. That’s what I pay attention to. You want to get through at least seven. That’s the ideal number.”
Well, there is one other number that Bumgarner really, really, really cares about.
He still doesn’t have a home run this season.
“Yeah,” Bochy said. “He wasn’t too happy about the DH.”
Just a little more context on that Bumgarner innings stat: It’s been 25 years since Reuschel did it in 1988, and prior to that, no Giant had thrown at least seven innings in at least nine consecutive starts since Vida Blue in 1980.
Vida had two streaks – of 10 and 11 games – that season. Oh, and the Giants’ record in the franchise era, as you probably might guess, is held by Juan Marichal. He had 22 of those starts in a row in 1968.
Brandon Crawford hadn’t hit a home run in 259 at-bats. Now he’s got two in a span of four.
“So … two in a span of, what, 263?” Crawford said.
Well, when you put it that way, it doesn’t sound so great. But Crawford's explanation for his power surge is exactly what you might have guessed by watching: He tried to play through those two sprained fingers, and even when he started feeling better, he was "feeling" for his swing.
“Now that I’m healthy, I feel my swing is back to where it was,” Crawford said.
In case you were curious, Bochy said he had Javier Lopez start the ninth, in part, because the Rays had some left-handed hitters he wanted to keep on their bench with the Nos. 7-9 spots coming up.
But mostly, he wanted to save Sergio Romo for just an out, maybe, after the right-hander threw 20 stressful pitches while escaping a no-out, bases-loaded situation a night earlier at Philadelphia.
Brandon Belt’s triple was just the Giants’ first three-bagger since the All-Star break and their 20th of the season.
A year ago, they led the major leagues with 57. This year, 20 puts them pretty much in the middle of the pack. The triple is one element of their attack that’s been missing this season, for sure.
(Angel Pagan, who broke Willie Mays’ SF-era franchise record with 15 last year, hit just one in 46 games before the DL and the operating room. But it should be mentioned that Tim Flannery waved away what would’ve been a second triple by sending Pagan home on that inside-the-parker May 25 that won’t be forgotten.)
A rare second-guess after a Giants victory? Sure, why not.
It’s hard for me to understand why Gregor Blanco wasn’t bunting after Joaquin Arias drew a leadoff walk in a 1-1 game in the sixth inning. Blanco was riding an 0-for-16, which became an 0-for-17 when he grounded into a double play. (Although replays appeared to show umpire Joe West, who did not have the finest night of his career, got the call wrong.)
Blanco broke his 0-fer streak with a single in the seventh. But given that it was a pitching duel and a tie game, and Blanco is epically struggling right now, the bunt should’ve been a fairly straightforward call there.
Hunter Pence gets more infield hits than any middle-of-the-order hitter I’ve ever covered.
Try comprehending this: The Giants are 30-27 against teams with winning records, and 20-32 against teams with losing records.
Does that tell you they’re good enough to match up with the top teams in baseball? That they really aren’t as lousy as their record would indicate, and that this season really is an aberration?
Well, I’m not peddling you hope on that. But if it falls off the back of the truck … hey, go take it home to the kids.