ORACLE PARK — Madison Bumgarner and Noah Syndergaard have only faced one another twice. Most recently, Bumgarner came out on top as his San Francisco Giants lit up the New York Mets’ bullpen in a 9-3, 10-inning win on June 4.
The only other time: Bumgarner’s complete-game shutout in the 2016 National League wild card game, a pitcher’s duel that was the last shining memory for a franchise that has since fired its general manager, lost 232 regular-season games and, until the All-Star break, was headed for a third straight 90-loss season.
With Bumgarner facing Syndergaard and his hapless Mets in the opener of a four-game set on Thursday, the Giants sit just three games out of the second wild card after winning 12 of their last 14. San Francisco has resembled a contender over the last three weeks, but the reality is that what has made Bumgarner invaluable in the playoffs is also what makes him the team’s most valuable trade asset. That’s why Thursday’s start, despite the Giants’ recent run, is almost certain to be his last — or second-to-last — home bow in orange and black.
“The great players, they’re able to perform under pressure well, that’s part of what makes a great player,” said manager Bruce Bochy. “Sure, you’ve got to be talented, but it’s the guys that perform under pressure, that’s what puts them in another class. That’s what he’s so good at.”
The face of the franchise’s three World Series championships in the first half of the decade, Bumgarner has a 2.11 career playoff ERA in 102 1/3 innings over 16 games. That kind of experience is invaluable to contending teams down the stretch, and why president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi could extract a top-level prospect for him. It’s no accident that Bumgarner’s no-trade clause — which has been reported to include the Braves, Red Sox, Cubs, Astros, Brewers, Yankees, Phillies and Cardinals — is comprised of potential contenders.
Said center fielder Kevin Pillar: “As tough as it is to lose a face of your franchise, a guy who stood so much for this city and this organization, a guy who clearly wants to be here, you see it as a way of allowing him to go somewhere else, almost hand-pick his destination with his no-trade clause, and give him the opportunity to go win again.”
Two or three weeks ago, that seemed a reasonable way to look at the situation. Winning the way the Giants are now — having vaulted up from the No. 28 offense in baseball in runs per game all the way to No. 20 — would seem to complicate the long-view strategy: Deal veteran assets now to bolster the farm system from the bottom up and create a sustainable winner.
“Farhan will tell you, just like I will, this is why we’re here: To win,” Bochy said. “No, this is a good thing. It’s not going to make anything difficult. It makes things better. That’s what we’re here for.”
The fact remains, though, that the Giants were one of the worst teams in the Major Leagues for half of a season, and the roster has not fundamentally changed. The additions of Alex Dickerson and Mike Yastrzemski have energized the lineup and solidified what was a revolving door in the outfield, but with Evan Longoria — who had just started to regain his All-Star form — going down, and Pablo Sandoval’s hot start fading as he’s forced into an everyday role, the Giants don’t have the look of a team poised to make a run.
It’s important to remember that Zaidi said in his first press conference that he was not beholden to the heroes of the Giants’ recent past, and that no player was sacrosanct.
“Everything’s got to be on the table,” he said, when asked specifically about Bumgarner. If Bumgarner — who can be a free agent after the season — can help the franchise win in the long term by bringing one or two prospects into the system, is that not more valuable than a one-game wild card crapshoot?
What of Zaidi’s other guiding principle, though: Playing meaningful baseball into September and October? Why not keep a proven veteran arm when you can make the playoffs after two years of misery?
“I always felt like we were better than what was going on,” Bochy said. “Sometimes, you get in a rut, it’s hard to get out of that … You have a couple years of [losing], it’s probably the hardest thing to break, so hopefully, that’s been broken, and these guys know they’re good enough and can compete with anybody.”
And there it is: Hope. It’s what fueled Torture and Even Year Magic, but it’s also what has kept the Giants from any meaningful postseason success for the past five years, as the organization — and fans — hoped that the next big contract given to an aging star would be the final nudge the team needed to return to playoff glory.
San Francisco’s almost-pathological hope was what had the ever-loquacious Pillar holding court for 15 minutes in the clubhouse, talking to two television crews and half a dozen reporters. Hope was what drew three times more media than normal to Bochy’s pregame press gaggle, a crowd so thick he was visibly and audibly startled when he entered the dugout. It’s what sent a buzz through the crowd when Bumgarner rocketed a Syndergaard fastball just foul down the left field line in the third inning. Hope, though, is not a strategy.
Pillar — as big a part of the Giants’ recent success as anyone, hitting .328 with two home runs and 14 RBIs in the last 14 games — saw both sides.
“Ultimately, you want what’s best for the long-term of this organization. That being said, you also think about the now and how difficult it is to get an opportunity to play in the postseason,” said Pillar, who made the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, but hasn’t been back since. “… I’m a player. It’s my job to go out there and play. I don’t need to make those tough decisions that Farhan and the front office have to make. Sometimes, the unpopular decision is sometimes the right decision. You don’t necessarily know that immediately. You might not know that two, three years down the line.”
Ryan Gorcey is the sports editor of the San Francisco Examiner. He grew up a Dodger fan and graduated from Cal, so he’s used to crushing disappointment, yet is oddly optimistic. Or just plain odd. Follow him on Twitter at @RyanGorceyor email him at email@example.com.