ST. LOUIS – The Giants’ hotel is directly across the street from Busch Stadium, just three lanes of asphalt and a Stan Musial statue away. Madison Bumgarner had plenty of time to double back.
“I can’t believe I did that,” said Bumgarner, dressing after a night’s work in Game 1 of the NLCS Saturday night. “I never forget my belt buckle.”
Bumgarner’s belt buckle, big as all of Caldwell County, was a gift from his buddy, Jade Corkill, one of the world’s best team ropers and a National Finals Rodeo champion. He wears it with pride. He’ll loop his thumbs underneath it. It’s a prized possession.
It is not, however, a good luck charm.
“If I thought superstitious like that, I’d leave it in the room on purpose,” Bumgarner said. “Just get that thought right out of my head.”
When Bumgarner arrives at his locker, he puts aside dirty socks and numerology and trinkets, all of it extraneous thoughts. Nothing but snake oil, as he calls it – and it’s properly pronounced “O-A-L,” by the way.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Bumgarner leads Giants past Cardinals in Game 1]
When he tramples the chalk line and stands on the mound, he whittles it down to sheer competition, just him vs. the hitter. And the way he sees it, if his cutter and curve and four-seamer are true off his fingertips from his lariat-like delivery, then he’ll have those hitters tied at the ankles and falling under their own weight.
That is what he did to the Cardinals on Saturday night, finally dismounting with two outs in the eighth after allowing just four singles. The Giants walked into Busch Stadium and Bumgarner saw red but not dread, containing a lineup that twice clowned Clayton Kershaw while taking a 3-0 victory.
Bumgarner set a major league postseason road record by extending his streak to 26 2/3 scoreless innings. Still just 25 years young, he guided the Giants to their sixth win in his ninth career playoff start. And when he got to the seventh inning, the very place and time where the Cardinals twice dismantled Kershaw in the NLDS, Bumgarner literally cut off the angle and prevented them from using any breakaway speed.
He does not think about context or history in the middle of a game. In the seventh inning, though, with a 3-0 lead built on mistakes and a few opportunistic at-bats, Bumgarner made a rare acknowledgment. Yes, he stopped to consider it: This is exactly where Kershaw, the greatest pitcher on the planet, stood in this exact inning. And this is where they got to him.
“I knew the seventh inning would be big-time,” Bumgarner said. “I knew that was a big inning to get through. Regardless of whether I gave them anything to hit or any momentum, I kind of figured they’d feel they had some going into that inning.”
Then Yadier Molina singled on a first-pitch fastball. Then Jon Jay poked a blooper on a two-strike slider. Neither was a pitch Bumgarner particularly felt was a mistake. The Giants had one out, and swollen eardrums.
“I had to tell myself, 'OK, I’ve got to make a pitch and keep this thing from unraveling,’” Bumgarner said.
He jumped ahead 0-2 on Kolten Wong and unleashed a wipeout slider. Wong coaxed a grounder to first base, where Brandon Belt struggled to get the ball out of his glove. Belt threw a shovel pass, and it was all gridiron from there.
Bumgarner caught the ball in front of the bag. Like any left-handed pitcher would be, he was blind to the runner. He could have reached across his body, all a wing and a prayer, and hope he didn’t arrive too soon or swipe air.
Instead, Bumgarner left nothing to chance. He lowered his right shoulder, veered into the baseline like a stock car driving a rival into the wall and applied the tag as Wong, all scowls, bounced off him like a racquetball.
“I’ve been beaten to the base before when I couldn’t see the runner,” Bumgarner said. “I was trying to tag him. That’s all I was trying to do. I wasn’t trying to knock him down. They looked like maybe they were mad, but I didn’t hear anything out there. I just wanted to make sure we tagged him.”
The Cardinals, apparently confused into thinking a horse race had broken out, challenged the out call. But there is no such thing as a steward’s inquiry after you’ve applied a tag. The most cheerful crowd in baseball watched replay after replay and booed, even as the evidence was plain to them. Afterward, they turned their anger on Bumgarner. It was like listening to your minister run a blue streak.
Bumgarner still had to get through pinch hitter Tony Cruz with runners at second and third. He might have gotten away with a balk when he stepped off, thinking he had Buster Posey crossed up. The Cardinals howled in protest. But it wasn’t called, Bumgarner overpowered Cruz with a 2-2 fastball at the top of the strike zone, and he walked off the mound – something Kershaw, for all his might, failed to do against this team.
“We don’t necessarily put a star by the seventh inning or anything,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “We just know that we stay the course, and we needed someone to come up there and get a big hit for us. And Madison Bumgarner was good today. He kept us from having that big inning.”
With so much of his career still in front of him, Bumgarner already has become one of the most accomplished October pitchers in Giants history. He already holds franchise records for starts (nine) and wins (five).
He is 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA in those nine assignments. Kershaw is 1-5 with a 4.98 ERA in his eight starts. Dwight Gooden, another prodigy from almost three decades earlier, was 0-4 with a 4.50 ERA in eight postseason starts.
Only 13 left-handers in major league history have started more postseason games than Bumgarner – an illustrious group that includes Andy Pettitte, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Steve Carlton, CC Sabathia and David Wells. Bumgarner has a lower postseason ERA than all of those names.
And he is 4-0 with a 0.59 ERA in four postseason road starts, a run that includes Halloween Night in 2010, when he was a 21-year-old winner in Game 4 of the World Series at Texas.
Leave it to Belt to put Bumgarner into history.
“In my book, he may not be No. 1,” said Belt, “but he’s in the top two.”
Posey, a fellow rookie batterymate that night in Texas four years ago, has seen plenty of these starts. He still marvels at them. Bumgarner got 11 outs in the air, mostly when the Cardinals reached for fastballs away or tried to stay back on his late-breaking curve.
“They tried, but they were quality pitches,” Posey said. “He’s so consistent and I think that’s something he takes a lot of pride in. No matter if he’s giving up hits or setting them down in a row, he looks the same.
“It’s for you guys to rank them, and I’m biased, but I think he’s up there with the best when you look at all the big games where he’s pitched well.”
He went the distance in the 8-0 wild card victory at Pittsburgh. He might have held up his end of a scoreless duel with Washington’s Doug Fister in Game 3 of the NLDS, if not for the bunt he fielded and threw away.
So it was a victory for applied learning when the Cardinals bunted in the fifth inning Saturday night. Bumgarner looked to second base. Then he threw to first base for the out.
“Maybe we should get that thought out there,” Bumgarner said. “You know, that I’m not comfortable throwing to bases. So they’ll bunt more and we’ll get more outs.”
Bumgarner even helped out by recommending that left fielder Travis Ishikawa wear a new pair of space age-looking, Mike Trout-model cleats he received Saturday morning. Ishikawa, a veteran of eight whole major league starts in left field, raced in those cleats to make a diving catch to end the fifth inning.
“I went up to a couple guys today and said, 'Hey, can I pull these off?’” Ishikawa said.
Some of the feedback was less than enthusiastic. But he went with his starting pitcher’s recommendation.
“Hey if you look fast, you feel fast,” Bumgarner told him.
And when it was done, after four outs from Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla, then four rounds of interviews on the field, and a turn at the podium, and after Bumgarner had showered and dressed, he faced his own clothing dilemma.
The pitcher who lassoed the world Saturday night looped a baseball belt into his jeans, and walked across the street.