SAN FRANCISCO — It was rather fitting that Madison Bumgarner’s final start of the first half came opposite the Futures Game being held down in San Diego. For all the left-hander has accomplished, he is still just 26 years old, and his last three months have shown that he might have as much room to grow as the young prospects who ran around Petco Park on Sunday night.
Even with a resume that is just about unmatched in today’s game, Bumgarner still has items on the bucket list. He came close to a big one against the Diamondbacks, taking a perfect game into the fifth and a no-hitter into the eighth. For the fourth time in his career, Bumgarner had to settle for a 14-strikeout one-hitter.
“It’s one box he hasn’t checked off,” manager Bruce Bochy said after a 4-0 win. “He’s done just about everything else. We were pulling for him so hard.”
Asked if he expects Bumgarner to one day put a zero up in the hits column, Bochy answered without hesitation.
“No question,” he said. “Well … I say no question, but it shows you how difficult it is to throw a no-hitter. It takes luck, too.”
[INSTANT REPLAY: No-hit bid ends in eighth, Bumgarner Ks 14 in win]
The Giants seemed headed for their fifth straight year with a no-hitter, and the list of prior ones shows how flukey it can be. Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto are the first Giants teammates to reach 10 wins before the break since Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum in 2009, but Jonathan Sanchez was the pitcher on that team who threw a no-hitter, doing it seven years to the day before Bumgarner took the mound Sunday. Lincecum pulled it off twice, but only years after his peak. Chris Heston threw the Giants’ 17th no-hitter last year and he has spent most of this season in Triple-A or on the disabled list.
Bumgarner has repeatedly looked poised to add his name to the record books. This was the third time he took a no-hitter into the eighth, and he said that’s when it really sets in. On this night, it was easy early on to picture a Buster Hug. Bumgarner struck out five the first time through the order and then set down five straight via strikeouts.
“You’re always conscious of it,” he said. “You know you haven’t pitched in the stretch yet. Once you get through six, you get pretty close. For me, once you get through seven, you may start trying to do it. That’s the time to try to get it done, but at the same time, you don’t want to put all your concerns on that. You’re trying to get guys out.”
The first 14 went down, 10 on strikeouts, but an error ended any shot at a perfect game. Jake Lamb hit a high fly down the right field line with two down in the fifth and Gregor Blanco sprinted over from Triples Alley. The man who saved Cain’s perfect game couldn’t keep this one going, dropping the ball.
“Right before I’m going to catch it, I got the sun in my eyes,” Blanco said. “I put my glove there to see if I could catch it, and I didn’t. It was a really tough fly ball.”
Blanco approached Bumgarner in the dugout after the inning and offered an apology. “I was really trying to get there,” he told him. Bumgarner told him not to worry about it, patting Blanco on the leg.
Lamb’s ball was the first to even reach the outfield, and Bumgarner continued to cruise after the first runner reached base. He struck out three of the next five hitters and got through the seventh at just 94 pitches. With the All-Star break looming, his pitch count wasn’t an issue. As the crowd noise built, Bumgarner’s teammates started to see the finish line.
“I thought he was going to throw a no-hitter,” shortstop Brandon Crawford said. “Really. His stuff was that good. He’s come close a number of times. He had the stuff to do it tonight and I thought there was a decent chance he was going to do it.”
Crawford drove in three runs to give Bumgarner a cushion. On the bench, Bochy went through his mental no-hit-bid playbook. Ruben Tejada, a player known for his glove, replaced Conor Gillaspie in the sixth.
Bumgarner opened the eighth with his ninth strikeout on a curveball. The first five hitters in Arizona’s lineup struck out on curveballs.
“It just happened to be working for us tonight,” Bumgarner said.
Lamb had swung through a slider in the second inning, and the fact that he was even taking that at-bat showed just how much the stars have to align for a pitcher to throw a no-hitter. In his breakthrough season, Lamb is hitting just .193 against lefties. Bumgarner had held them to a .179 mark in only 84 at-bats. Opposing managers go out of their way to stack the lineup with right-handers, but Lamb was in there Sunday night.
“I love having lefties in the lineup,” Bumgarner said. “I’ll take as many lefties as I can get. But he hung in there.”
Lamb pulled a 2-2 cutter into right field. Just like that, the bid was over. The disappointment was clear on Bumgarner’s face as he took a short trip around the mound, but he got a double play to end the eighth. In the ninth, he walked a batter but induced a game-ending double play.
“He got us involved there late with a couple double plays,” joked Crawford, who only touched the ball four times. “That was nice of him.”
Bumgarner ended up with his 10th win and he finished the first half with a 1.94 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. He tied his career-high in strikeouts and he has 146 of them in 129 2/3 innings. This is the best he has ever been, and that’s saying quite a bit.
“Nothing surprises us with what he does and how he elevates his game,” Bochy said. “It’s a credit to him. He works as hard as anyone I’ve seen at trying to get better.”
That work will put him in position to chase this feat again. Maybe one night, he’ll finally finish it off.
“It hasn’t worked out for me, but that’s alright,” Bumgarner said.
Asked if this one stung a bit more than the others, Bumgarner smiled.
“I don’t think a one-hit shutout ever stings,” he said.