SAN FRANCISCO — It’s dangerous to say something is inevitable in baseball. Melvin Upton Jr. dispensed that age-old lesson on Saturday night.
Upton Jr. has the lowest batting average in baseball over the last three years, but he happened to be the only one who could manage a hit off Madison Bumgarner on Saturday. Bumgarner settled for his third career one-hitter and second in the last 13 months, reminding us once again that a perfect game is not a birthright. It’s not inevitable.
Just don’t tell that to the Giants.
“You just feel like it’s a matter of time with him,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “He’s been so close.”
“Yeah, absolutely. That’s the best way to describe it,” first baseman Brandon Belt said. “It didn’t work out for him tonight, but it’s one of those things you know is going to happen.”
It’s hard to argue with the logic, even if MLB history shows that only 23 pitchers have reached perfection. Bumgarner doesn’t care much for the history books, anyway. He tore them up last October en route to a third title before his 26th birthday. On nights like this one, he looks very much like a pitcher who one day will go 27 up, 27 down. The Padres had no chance until Upton Jr. poked a mild single up the middle, and they had no chance after the night’s only hit. One of these nights, you figure luck will get Bumgarner that one out he’s missing, but he said it’s not something he’ll search for.
“I’m not here to pitch perfect games or no-hitters,” he said. “It would definitely be special no matter what, but my main concern is winning games.”
Few are better at that than Bumgarner. He became the second 18-game winner in the majors and tied a career high. With three weeks left in the season, he has a strong shot at becoming the franchise’s first 20-game winner since 1993. On Saturday he insisted he was happy with the win and not at all disappointed when Upton Jr. singled.
“No. No. No,” he said, smiling. “If there was (disappointment) I wouldn’t tell you, but there’s really not.”
The lone baserunner came in the eighth after 23 straight Padres had gone down quietly. Bumgarner cruised, getting strikeouts and flyouts and rarely needing help. Justin Upton’s long fly in the fifth was tracked down easily by Angel Pagan. Ron Wotus had Kelby Tomlinson positioned perfectly in the seventh -- a couple steps toward the second-base bag on Derek Norris -- and the rookie made a leaping catch on the only ball Bumgarner thought would get through in the first seven innings. Justin Upton hit a grounder deep to the hole at short in the eighth but Ehire Adrianza made it look easy. Adrianza has struggled mightily at the plate, but the Giants have kept him around as their second-best shortstop glove.
“We all know what kind of defensive player he is and what kind of range he’s got,” Bumgarner said. “I felt he would get to it and he did.”
Adrianza and Tomlinson aren’t Plan A for a no-hit bid. Bochy is always proactive in those moments, putting his best defense on the field. But as he looked at a banged-up bench on Saturday and then looked out at the field, he realized he wouldn’t need to make any moves. Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford and Gregor Blanco are all hurt.
“There was nobody I was going to change,” Bochy said. “We had our good defense out there and they did a nice job.”
With the action on the field set, the focus turned to the dugout. Players are famously superstitious during runs at history, and Belt took a lot of good-natured ribbing for accidentally sitting in Matt Cain’s spot on the bench in the seventh inning of his 2012 perfect game. Given the way this one ultimately turned out, maybe Belt should have taken Bumgarner’s spot for an inning or two.
“I thought about it,” he said, smiling.
Surely, nobody would mess with Bumgarner, perhaps the most-feared pitcher in the game …
“No, really, I really did think about it,” Belt said. “I should’ve.”
Bumgarner probably would have appreciated the gesture. Teammates say Bumgarner doesn’t buy into the unwritten no-hitter rules. Bumgarner doesn’t want anything to change during a game and often will come up and start a conversation with a guy when the hits column on the scoreboard still reads zero.
“I want my guys to be as comfortable as they can be,” Bumgarner said. “I feel like it pays off and that aura rubs off on everybody else.”
The aura filled the ballpark as another sellout crowd gave Bumgarner one standing ovation after the next. This was the night, they felt.
“I think we all felt it,” Bochy said. “Once you get into that fifth inning area, it was all working. You always get that feeling with Bum once he gets into that fifth inning area. What an incredible performance. We’re all a little disappointed, but yet you witnessed a beautiful game tonight. He just had a great look about him.”
With four outs remaining, Bumgarner lost his chance to Upton Jr., the same player who hit a broken-bat single against Chris Heston earlier this year at Petco Park to break up a budding no-hit bid. Upton Jr. had been 0 for 10 with six strikeouts against Bumgarner.
“It sounded like it broke his bat, but I’m not sure if it did,” Bumgarner said. “If it hits one way or the other, somebody might have a chance, but there’s nobody standing out there in shallow center field.”
Bumgarner got a standing ovation as Upton Jr. touched first and then another one when he left the field after the eighth. He got another raucous roar at the start of the ninth, and quickly finished off his third complete game in his last seven starts.
Coming off October’s performance, the 26-year-old spent much of his spring answering questions about his arm and his future. National reporters would parachute into Scottsdale, watch Bumgarner face a few Cactus League opponents, then ask if he was worried about the fact that he threw 270 innings in 2014. He grew tired of the questions, and a weary smile would cross his face when he knew where a query was going.
Months later, Bumgarner is seven outs from a 200-inning season. He’s on pace for 225 innings, which would be a career-high for the regular season. He’s the only National League pitcher with four complete games.
Bumgarner doesn’t have that perfect game, but the left arm is as strong as ever.
“The goal is to go out there and win games, but at the same time you like to be the guy that starts the game and also finishes it,” he said. “I’d like to think (this season) answers a lot of questions I had coming into the year. That’s why I come in and work my butt off every day.”