SAN DIEGO – October baseball is like hot water and bleach to a pitching staff.
You might come out sparkling clean, and celebrate with a trophy. But do it enough times and the colors won’t pop. The fibers will become brittle. And it’s all too easy to lose your shape.
That’s what makes Madison Bumgarner’s first half all the more remarkable. He stopped a four-game losing streak for the third consecutive start, pitching seven innings in the Giants’ 4-2 victory over the San Diego Padres at Petco Park Thursday night.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Giants snap skid with 4-2 win in San Diego]
He completed seven innings for the 11th time in 19 starts – and the sixth consecutive outing. Since June 14, the Giants are 5-1 in Bumgarner’s starts and 2-18 whenever anyone else takes the ball.
Matt Cain is giving up home runs at an alarming rate and there are questions about his health after he was pulled without hesitation in the first inning Wednesday. The air went out of Tim Lincecum’s balloon two years ago. Ryan Vogelsong was out of sorts, then went on the disabled list with a fractured finger.
But Bumgarner? He’ll go into the break 10-5 with a 3.02 ERA.
Last year at the break? He was 10-5 with a 3.27 ERA.
“We’ve been spoiled in the past with the performances from our starting pitching,” said right-hander Sergio Romo, who recorded his 21st save in 24 chances. “For Bum to do that is big for us and we really, really needed it.”
The Giants needed more than just a solid start on the heels of a four-game losing streak. They needed stability. They might be downgrading from a brick house to a lean-to. But even that ramshackle structure needs one solid support to keep from collapsing.
Bumgarner doesn’t want to be in the stopper role. He’d rather try to pick up the momentum from a victory and try to carry it forward. But the way he sees it, those things aren’t under his control.
“All we can do is go out there and compete, and give them a chance to win,” Bumgarner said. “I mean, it takes everybody. I’m glad to keep us in there. But I don’t really go out there thinking about any of that stuff. I just do the same things I always do.”
He was a no-brainer for Bruce Bochy to add to his NL All-Star pitching staff. Bochy hasn’t decided where Bumgarner will slot in the game, but an inning would appear to be a strong possibility. He’ll be as rested as he can get.
“He just gets better and better at his age,” Bochy said. “He’s gotten smarter and more consistent with all his pitches. He doesn’t get the credit sometimes. You talk about, ` Well, he’s got deception and a good fastball…’ But he knows what he’s doing out there.”
You saw it with Yasiel Puig. Bumgarner was shocked when Puig reached out and hit a home run against him at Dodger Stadium, plunking one just past the short fence in the right field corner. He altered his patterns two weeks later at AT&T Park and struck Puig out three times. He’s the only major league pitcher thus far to do that against the Dodgers’ sensation.
Bumgarner said he didn’t need much of an adjustment after the Padres’ two-run first inning Thursday night, although Bochy credited him for figuring something out. It was more a matter of realizing the Padres hit good pitches, said the lefty, and to trust that if he kept making them, he’d get better results.
“I just kept throwing strikes, getting ahead,” Bumgarner said. “Same thing you always try to do to compete.”
Maybe that’s the best mentality the Giants can hope to have from this point forward. Put aside the past, trust your skills and believe that if you execute, it’ll work out in your favor. When you talk about leading by example, that’s pretty much it.
Bumgarner is a leader on this staff in more ways than one. As mentioned, he’s a 10-game winner at the break for the second consecutive year. Already, Bumgarner has as many double-digit win seasons at the All-Star break as Lincecum has in his career. Cain has only done it once, in 2009.
And actually, Bumgarner’s ERA could be a lot lower. He’s tied for second in the NL with a .191 opponent’s average (only Clayton Kershaw’s is lower, at .186), and the bullpen has cashed in several of his runners.
Sure, Bumgarner faded down the stretch last year. He was pulled from the NLCS rotation. But he came back and gave the Giants a lift in Game 2 of the World Series. He’s kept on lifting ever since.
“I feel everybody wants to do better than they did,” he said. “I can definitely feel pretty good about it. But there’s a whole half left.”
This time, he’ll be an All-Star as he enters that second half.
“I’m just … I’m going for the ride,” he said. “I’ll just go and enjoy it.”