SAN FRANCISCO – Sometime after the fourth or fifth question about Bryce Harper, Madison Bumgarner wrinkled his nose.
“Y’all sure do like to talk about him,” he said.
Well, sure. Harper is one of the best hitters in the game, and he’s not even old enough to order a hefeweizen. His front-foot home run was the only blemish in Bumgarner’s seven innings. He made a sliding catch to preserve a tie in the eighth. And then he doubled in the 10th before scoring the winning run as the Washington Nationals avoided getting swept in three games with a 2-1 victory over the Giants Wednesday afternoon.
So, yes, Harper was the postgame topic. How do you pitch him? What do you think about him? Are you impressed with him? Could you take him down in an arm wrestling match?
(OK, that last one would've been a clown question.)
But it beats the Torquemada-like postgame inquisition put to the Giants on the last trip. Nobody likes to be grilled about errors they’ve committed, mistakes they’ve thrown over the plate or a pitching staff that is listing mid-ocean to a foreboding musical score.
Those weren’t the questions Wednesday afternoon because the Giants played a whistle clean series while taking two of three from a team that many experts (your humble scribe included) picked to win the World Series.
In the series, the Giants made just one error, allowed no unearned runs and the rotation went 1-0 with a 1.42 ERA in three games.
That was quite the fizzy tonic after a 1-5 trip that included 13 errors in six games, a 9.82 ERA from the rotation and 10 unearned runs.
“They got on track here, which is what we needed,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “It’s a tough loss today, but you have to be encouraged with how we played and pitched.”
Bumgarner was asked if he was encouraged, too.
“That’s nice but we know what everybody can do,” he said. “I don’t think anybody was too worried about it.”
Did the pitchers have any kind of meeting to remind themselves what was expected of them?
“No,” Bumgarner said. “There’s no need to say stuff we already know.”
But just in case, here’s Jeremy Affeldt:
“We’re only going to go as far as our starting pitching will take us,” the left-hander said. “So the way (the starters) were giving us opportunities in this series was huge. The way they were pitching and pounding the zone … They’re a mature staff and they’ve been through the fire and done well. It was a bump in the road for them.”
So it's back to Harper, and yes, he is a dangerous player – even when he doesn’t get a hit in the series until the sixth inning of the third game, and gets called out by his closer for not making a catch in the ninth inning of Tuesday night’s game.
“Give the kid credit,” Bochy said. “He came back and played well defensively. He seems like a tough kid and he plays the game right.”
Bumgarner said he wanted to go down and away on Harper with two strikes in the sixth inning of a scoreless game. It wasn’t a mistake per se, but it caught enough of the plate for Harper to drive it out to the opposite field.
“I hadn’t faced him but a handful of times, but I think he’s made it clear he’ll play as hard as he can every day,” said the 23-year-old Bumgarner, who figures to face Harper a lot over his career. “That’s the kind of player who will bring the best out of you.”
Affeldt, who took the loss, gave up Harper’s double in the 10th.
“I was trying to go away and it was middle in,” Affeldt said. “He probably could’ve hit it a lot further. He’s a great player, a hard-nosed player, and he can do those things late in a ballgame. You’ve got to be careful with him. He’s a little spark plug for them.”0
And he learns quickly. One day after he might have slowed a touch near the wall while failing to catch Gregor Blanco’s tying triple, Harper showed no such hesitation while catching Hunter Pence’s drive over his head.
Then, after Buster Posey’s single tied it in the eighth, Harper prevented the Giants from taking the lead when he made a sliding catch of Pence’s sinking line drive. First baseman Adam LaRoche followed with another diving stop on Brandon Belt’s hot grounder, then threw from his knees for a force at second base.
“That was the difference in the game, those plays,” Bochy said.
Said Belt: “You get up there in that situation with a plan to get a good pitch to hit, and when you do and they make a play, there’s not much more you can do. They made a play. You’ve got to tip your cap to them.”
Sometimes you tip your cap. That’s a lot better than trying to scratch your way out of a 6-0 hole. The questions are a little bit easier to answer, too.
Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post was kind enough to pass along some of Harper's comments on Bumgarner. The respect is mutual, it appears.
"Kid’s unbelievable," Harper said. "He’s one of the best guys I've faced all year. He’s a tough pitcher, a tough lefty-lefty matchup for me. Going into every AB, I’m trying to square something up against him. Try to have a good AB and try to have a good approach against him. He’s an incredible pitcher. The Giants are lucky to have him. Facing a guy like Bumgarner is a lot of fun. I look forward to those matchups the rest of my career."
Good stuff, and I also love that a 20-year-old refers to another player as "Kid."
Santiago Casilla saw a specialist at Stanford about the painful cyst in his right knee. Now the docs will huddle up and determine a course of treatment, and surgery is among the options. I’d imagine the Giants will have an update on Friday.
If Casilla is out for a long stretch, Jean Machi looks like a strong option to become a primary right-handed setup man.
Brandon Belt said his back isn’t a big deal. He doesn’t feel it with any rotational motion but it’s stiff when he stands for long periods. He expected to be fine with a day off, and ready to play on Friday.
A round of applause to Washington’s Davey Johnson, who managed his final regular-season game in San Francisco.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy invited Johnson to be one of his NL coaches for the All-Star game at New York’s Citi Field in July. It’s a fitting honor for Johnson, who won a World Series with the 1986 Mets and is sure to receive a tremendous and affectionate ovation.
Kilgore wrote this story about Johnson, as a roving hitting coach, recalling the first time he met Bochy when the future Giants skipper was a Mets minor leaguer.
Bochy was working on hitting to the opposite field. Johnson told him he’s a big, strong guy. He should focus on hitting for power.
It’s not like Bochy ever challenged any home run records, but his ability to pop one off the bench is one of the things that helped get him to the big leagues.
Remember right-hander Chris Ray, who was part of the 2010 World Series team, and the trade that sent Bengie Molina to Texas?
He has retired and moved onto his second career – as a brewmaster.
Now I have one more reason to detour to the Richmond area when I go to Washington DC in August.