SAN FRANCISCO — The Giants returned home with a disappointing road trip in their rearview mirror and a brutal schedule ahead, and after months of “one-day-at-a-time” talk, they started admitting the magnitude of every night. From the manager to the MVP, they talked about the fact that these are now big games, with huge swings week to week in the National League West and Wild Card races.
Big games demand big pitchers, and this team has the best spotlight starter in the sport.
Madison Bumgarner went the distance Tuesday, striking out 12 and walking none in a dominant 3-1 win over the Astros that emphatically brushed aside any lingering doubts from a four-game losing streak and 3-7 road trip.
“He definitely can sense the big moments,” catcher Buster Posey said. “And tonight was a big game for us.”
On this night, Bumgarner sensed that his team needed more than just a quality start or even a very good one. The Giants were reeling, in large part because their bullpen looks on fumes, and as Bumgarner walked up the dugout steps to pitch the top of the ninth, manager Bruce Bochy checked on his ace. He had Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla ready, just in case.
“He looked at me like, ‘Why are you asking?’” Bochy said, smiling. “That’s who he is.”
The baseball world found that out last October, and Bumgarner showed Tuesday that he remains as good of a closer as a starter. He got a popup and two liners to infielders during a quick ninth inning, finishing with 105 pitches and his eighth career complete game.
“Your great pitchers, your starters, they’re really good closers, too,” Bochy said. “They have that, whatever you want to call it, that eye of the tiger look.”
As sudden as the finish was, the most impressive part of Bumgarner’s night came early. He rattled off seven straight strikeouts from the first inning through the third, getting the three-through-nine hitters in the Astros lineup. Bumgarner became the third San Francisco Giant to strike out seven straight — but nobody on the field quite realized it was happening. Bumgarner found out during his post-game interview with Amy Gutierrez.
“It’s pretty cool,” he said.
Brandon Belt didn’t notice much, thinking at the time that “that’s just Madison.” Posey, like his pitcher, also found out after the game.
“I didn’t even know until just now, to be honest with you,” he said, smiling. “It was fun.”
For Bumgarner, it was also a potential hurdle. Bumgarner has 23 career double-digit strikeout games but after a few of them has lamented the fact that the whiffs raised his pitch count and ended his night prematurely. He struck out 10 Marlins on May 9, but after that game he said he was disappointed he had only lasted five innings. Bumgarner had thrown 46 pitches after his seventh strikeout Tuesday, but he got through the next two frames on just 18 pitches.
“It was up there, especially the first inning,” Bumgarner said. “After that we did have a lot of strikeouts but they were fairly quick and we were able to get quick outs. It’s something I’m always conscious of when it’s going that way. You want to get some quick outs.”
You also want to limit your deep counts and walks, and Bumgarner has done that at a ridiculous clip in recent weeks. He hasn’t walked a batter in three starts and has 35 strikeouts since his last free pass.
“You know it from watching him: He doesn’t like walking people,” Posey said. “It’s a focus and determination, I think. Plus he’s got good enough stuff that he can throw more than just his fastball on 3-2 counts. There’s some margin there for mistakes.”
Belt gave Bumgarner enough breathing room for a win with two mammoth homers in the middle innings. One was a no-doubter to center field, a rarity in this park. The other was a blast to left that was Belt’s seventh homer of the month and his fourth off a left-handed pitcher since August 1. He had zero homers against lefties until taking Cole Hamels deep the day after the trade deadline. In all, seven of Belt’s last 10 hits have been homers.
“When he gets hot, he can get rolling as well as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Posey said.
Belt is certainly scorching at the moment, and he said there’s a simple explanation.
“I’m kinda staying out of my own way and having a solid approach that allows my abilities to come through,” he said. “You see a lot more balls to left field and center field. When I’m doing that, I feel like I can hit just about anything that’s thrown up there. Now it’s just about sticking with that process.”
Given a lead, Bumgarner took this one to its intended finish. Bochy had Romo and Casilla warming at the end, but Bumgarner got through the ninth with eight pitches, saving Bochy from what would have been a hell of a stare down had the manager come out with the hook.
“We call them horses,” Bochy said of Bumgarner. “You can ride them.”
--- So, about that leaping catch from Belt in the ninth.
“It was a deceiving jump,” Bumgarner said.
The clubhouse was not impressed, and Belt couldn’t help but laugh as the ball made its way around the infield.
“I’m not sure why that was so funny to me, but I thought it was hilarious,” he said. “I got the giggles. I kinda felt like a ballerina out there. I felt like I looked so stupid out there.”
Teammates insisted Belt could have made the catch without the sprawled-legs leap. That's neither here nor there. The important part is that Belt has in the past claimed to be the best swimmer in Nacogdoches and the best basketball player in the clubhouse and the best ping-pong player and … so, anyway, he must have been a high-jump champ in high school, too, right. Belt nodded and started to confirm my suspicions, and then …
“We had the state champ in the high jump at my high school,” he admitted.
--- Nori Aoki was checked after BP and got the all-clear. He’ll start tomorrow, Bochy said.
--- If you’ve never seen Jose Altuve play in person, you NEED to see Jose Altuve play in person. It really is a one-of-a-kind experience, like watching Mike Trout or Aroldis Chapman.
--- Andrew Susac was 1-for-4 with a strikeout and a single in his first rehab game for the San Jose Giants. In other rehab news, I talked to Joe Panik briefly after the game. He spent most of his day getting treatment but said he’s getting better, is staying positive and hasn’t had any setbacks. The Giants expect Panik back in about two weeks.