OAKLAND — Brandon Belt has a plan. His dream, stated often, is to pitch in a big league game, so he can show off the arm that made him a top left-handed starter in Texas prep leagues. The Giants have never been all that keen on the idea, especially after Belt signed a lucrative long-term deal. But late Thursday, Belt smiled as he hatched a plan and talked of an opening.
If the Giants let a pitcher hit in the designated hitter spot, why not let a first baseman take the mound?
After all, the first unorthodox move worked out pretty well.
The game has seen plenty of position players on the mound. Belt himself faced a catcher earlier this month in Pittsburgh. But what Madison Bumgarner did Thursday is virtually unprecedented. He hit for himself in an American League park, becoming the first in 40 years to do it without a lineup card mistake necessitating the move, and it helped the Giants to a 12-6 win over the A’s.
Bumgarner’s lined-shot double in the third ignited a six-run rally for the Giants. He pitched into the seventh on the mound, as the Giants salvaged a game in this Bay Area series. Afterward, Bumgarner said he was happy that manager Bruce Bochy approached him with the idea a few days back. He gladly accepted the challenge.
“That was definitely pretty special that we got a chance to do that,” Bumgarner said. “I’m glad I didn’t make him look stupid.”
Bumgarner got to break the mold for a number of reasons, including the growing disabled list. The Giants didn’t feel like they had better options, and Bochy appreciates the way Bumgarner has become a competitive at-bat, not just someone aiming to hit a ball 500 feet (although he likes to do that, too). He noted repeatedly that Bumgarner has a “presence” in the batter’s box, and rookie Dillon Overton felt it early.
Bumgarner smoked a shot to center in a scoreless game and Billy Burns couldn’t catch up to it. The next five Giants reached base. Belt hit a two-run double, Buster Posey hit a three-run homer, and Brandon Crawford added a solo shot.
“I guess hitting can be contagious. We figured if the pitcher can do it, the rest of us can do it," Belt cracked. "When someone leads off and hits a double, it builds momentum and that’s what you saw.”
The Giants needed it after three of their ugliest losses of the season. Bumgarner wasn’t his usual self on the mound, giving up a two-run shot to lefty Yonder Alonso and four runs overall. But he provided a jolt for a clubhouse that fed off the energy of Bochy’s decision. The reaction to Bumgarner hitting was mostly positive, but in the hours after the news trickled out late Wednesday night, there was some negativity.
A couple Giants noted that some national pundits slammed Bochy’s decision. Bochy repeatedly insisted Thursday that this was his call, and it was made for just one reason: To give the Giants the best chance to win.
“We needed something to ignite us,” early in the game, Bochy said, “And he did it. He’s got a presence in the lineup. He’s a pitcher, but he’s imposing and he’s dangerous.”
Bumgarner was 1-for-4, but the lone hit started an avalanche. He got a loud ovation from fans on both sides as he walked to the plate, the scoreboard showing an unusual combo. Because the Coliseum lists the starting pitcher under the rest of the lineup, Bumgarner, the No. 9 hitter, was listed twice in a row.
Bumgarner said he wasn’t surprised by all the talk surrounding the move. He also didn’t particularly care if anyone thought it was a bad idea.
“I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody,” he said. “We’re trying to win a ballgame.”
This was the 50th victory for the Giants, who maintain a steady lead in the division. They’ll try to get close to 60 by the All-Star break, and Bumgarner is surely headed to San Diego. While he got to hit Thursday night, in the afternoon Bochy revealed that Bumgarner will not participate in the Home Run Derby.
“That kind of got blown out of proportion,” Bumgarner said. “I got asked if I would do it if they asked, and I said of course I would. It kind of just took off. It would be fun to do, but at the same time, I wouldn’t want to take away from a guy who has hit 15 to 20 homers.”
Bumgarner will be a spectator during the Derby, and that’s fine to the Giants. They’re happy to let him take his cuts in games that count, and with road series in Boston and New York after the break, Bumgarner might get a shot at another American League park.
His teammates hope it happens. There seemed to be no discontent with Bochy’s decision to put a backup on ice while a pitcher took four at-bats, with one yelling out “what a hitter!” as Bumgarner spoke to reporters and another calling his feats “legendary.”
As Bumgarner walked through the clubhouse, a couple pitchers watched and shook their heads, smiling. One was asked how he would pitch to Bumgarner. He thought about it for a while, and finally said he wasn’t quite sure.
“I’m just glad he’s on our team,” he said.