PITTSBURGH – History never happens in the on-deck circle. There are no acts of heroism within its confines, no daring or athletic feats.
When those feats happen, though, it is one hell of a place to stand and watch.
“Do you hear silence?” said Travis Ishikawa, describing the moment of transubstantiation when Edinson Volquez’s flat curve met Brandon Crawford’s bat for a grand slam Wednesday night.
“I don’t know if you really do. I don’t know if silence is a sound. But I heard it. Walking to the plate, after that home run, that’s all I heard.”
They called it Buctober here in the Steel City. The Giants simply call it the postseason. And this decade, whenever they wedge themselves into the field, they find a way to shout over the din. Or mute it entirely.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Bumgarner shuts out Pirates in Wild Card game]
Madison Bumgarner had noise canceling stuff while throwing a four-hitter, and Crawford’s slam in the fourth inning was a Judo chop to 40,000 black-shirted tracheas as the Giants overwhelmed the Pirates 8-0 in the NL Wild Card game and advanced to play the Washington Nationals in an NL Division Series that begins Friday at Nationals Park.
Bumgarner is 25 years old. He participated in his 10th celebratory clubhouse soaking. The light beer cataract is up to a four-can gusher now, and some folks wanted to get it flowing early.
“When that ball went over the fence, I mean … game over,” said right-hander Tim Hudson, who will follow Jake Peavy and start Game 2 in Washington on Saturday. “Give Bum a 4-nothing lead, I don’t give a damn. It’s, 'Let’s go spray some champagne.’
“He takes the mound with the feeling that he’s the best player in the stadium, and you know what? He might be. The great players do that. They answer the call.”
It shouldn’t have been an automatic decision for Bruce Bochy to select Bumgarner for this assignment, even if that’s how he regarded it. Peavy had better numbers and more winning starts in September. It’s not like Bumgarner, for all his postseason success going back to Halloween night in Texas four years ago, had pitched in an elimination game, either. As much as everyone references those six do-or-die victories in the 2012 championship season, it was Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong or Barry Zito on the mound on those dire nights.
But Bochy never had a doubt about Bumgarner. Neither did Buster Posey. And when the left-hander began to warm up, even the Giants’ understated catcher knew he was seeing something special.
“Honestly, I don’t say it much, but in the bullpen you just had that feeling,” Posey said. “He was throwing the ball wherever he wanted. The moment just didn’t seem too big for him.”
It fit Bumgarner as well as his custom boots – a gift that Peavy left in his locker.
“It helped a lot, just being out there in the big games like that,” Bumgarner said. “Just knowing you’ve been there before and knowing the success we’ve had, it made a big difference for me. I have to push all the nerves and things outside and find a way to just concentrate on pitching. If you don’t, if you get amped up and start leaving balls over the middle, that doesn’t work too well in this league.”
Especially against a Pirates lineup that includes reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen and a team that finished the season on a 16-4 blitz. No NL team won more home games than the Pirates, either. The atmosphere at PNC Park might have exceeded anything the Giants had seen in their recent postseason travels.
But Bumgarner nullified McCutchen (0 for 3 with a walk) with a flick of the wrists, as simple as taking a bishop off the chessboard. He allowed four hits, all singles, and struck out 10. Posey was especially struck at the left-hander’s arm side command, how he pounded left-handers inside and worked right-handers away. That’s how he generated all those pop-ups and strikeouts – the kind of plays that result in the most reliable outs.
"He don't really come at you with a lot of flair," Hudson said. "He just goes out there and sticks it right up your butt."
It was the eighth inning before the Pirates advanced a runner to third base, and that was after a pair of infield errors.
It was just the 23rd time in major league history a pitcher threw a shutout while striking out at least 10 in a postseason game. Bumgarner joined a short and luminous list that includes Justin Verlander, Tim Lincecum, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Jim Palmer, Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax.
“We just know when he takes the mound, he’ll rise to the occasion and he did that,” said Brandon Belt, who drove in three insurance runs and worked a pair of critical walks in his first two plate appearances. “It was amazing how loud it was, consistently loud, and it didn’t bother him at all. It didn’t bother any of us at all.”
The blackout crowd’s white noise ceased abruptly in the fourth inning, after Pablo Sandoval fouled off a pair of two-strike pitches before coaxing a curveball into center field for a single. Hunter Pence chopped his single through the left side. Belt took a tantalizing 2-2 curve in the process of working a walk that loaded the bases.
And then Crawford, whose first major league hit was a grand slam back in 2011, simply hoped to put the ball in play on a 1-2 count. The crowd thundered. He fouled off a curveball. Was he sitting on another?
“No, I wasn’t,” said Crawford, laughing softly at either the ridiculousness of the question or the outcome. “Once I got to two strikes, I’m just trying to battle and make contact. The last thing you want to do is strike out. Fortunately, he left a curveball a little higher than he wanted, and I got a good piece of it.”
Crawford, so proud of the fact he never reacts to anything on the field, gulped air as the ball left his bat. He watched, open-mouthed, as right fielder Travis Snider’s body sagged in surrender. He saw the ball drop into a fan’s hands in the boxes perched above the scoreboard. And then, as he rounded first base, he listened.
A sellout crowd prayed. The ball soared higher than the intercessions.
“When I hit it, it died down a little bit,” Crawford said. “Then it went over the fence, and rounding the bases, it was just silent.”
It was the fourth postseason slam by a Giant, and the second in an elimination game, and surely you haven’t forgotten Posey off Mat Latos in Cincinnati two years ago, or Will Clark at Wrigley Field off Greg Maddux in the 1989 NLCS. Chuck Hiller hit a slam in the 1962 World Series as well.
Most remarkable: It was the first time out of 54 postseason grand slams in baseball history that a shortstop hit one. Even St. Derek does not own a grand slam in October.
Of course, just a night earlier, the A’s had blown a four-run lead. This one, for all those pleasantly scenic yellow bridges spanning the Allegheny, appeared impassable.
The scoreboard operators implored the Pirates fans to scream and stomp again, but beyond a tallboy of Iron City, there was no restoring hope.
Then came the postgame scene, and the four-can salute, and Hunter Pence waiting for the cameras and teammates to be arranged just so before launching into a very brief, much more all-audience friendly speech.
“Great work tonight, job well done,” he said to a group of teammates. “Will we get to play a playoff game at home again?”
“YES! YES! YES!”
The storylines are rich and varied between the Giants and Nationals. Kevin Frandsen and Nate Schierholtz are on Washington’s bench, along with first-year manager Matt Williams. Game 1 starter Stephen Strasburg, a forced spectator two postseasons ago, will start against Peavy, his idol and part-time workout partner while growing up in San Diego. There is the choice of Hudson in Game 2, who ran out of fuel in September but is 18-5 with a 2.35 ERA in 31 career starts against the Nats. And when the series shifts to AT&T Park for Game 3, it’s looking like Bumgarner against Doug Fister – a rematch from Game 2 of the 2012 World Series.
Bumgarner threw seven shutout innings against the Tigers that night. He’ll look to extend a postseason streak of 16 consecutive zeroes. He hopes that won’t be an elimination game, too.
“We won’t be favorites going into Washington,” said Peavy, who won a ring with the Red Sox last year. “I don’t know how much of a favorite we were in Boston, to be honest with you. But I’ll say this: We believe in each other. We believe in the unit. We pick each other up.
“Everybody else can say what they want to say. We believe.”
Almost four years ago, still too young to drink one beer, let alone four, Bumgarner leaned against a wall in the visiting clubhouse in Texas after his Halloween night victory in Game 4 and tried to make sense of what he’d done. The Giants had just taken a World Series game on the road with an all-rookie battery.
Bumgarner did not have the sense of entitlement that comes too easily when young people stand on the precipice. His overriding emotion that night was not vanity or pride. It was appreciation.
“I didn’t expect this in my wildest dreams, but I’m definitely glad to be here and have this opportunity,” the 20-year-old kid from Hickory, N.C., said that night. “This might be the only opportunity I get. Hopefully there’s a lot more, but you never know.”
Thanks to him, the Giants have another opportunity, another life – and another chance to control the volume.