He’ll always be a country music ballad, a drawl-dripping cross between an action hero and a mountain man. Among his amazing feats Saturday, Madison Bumgarner attempted to catch a one-hopper with his bare hand — the left hand that won him immortality, spots on late-night TV programs, truck commercials, Sportsman of the Year honors and eternal Bay Area reverence. The futile naked stab was so worrisome to trainer Dave Groeschner that he stood on the top step of the Giants dugout, prepared to inspect a wounded bear paw.
MadBum didn’t even look at him. He just threw his next pitch.
Later, batting in the fourth inning against the trade-depleted, July-surrendering A’s, Bumgarner fouled a pitch off his knee. He barely felt it and, again, focused on the next pitch. “I tried to stay inside it a little more,” he said. “I was able to make the adjustment. And I hit it pretty good.”
He hit it, in fact, over the fence in left-center field. It was his third home run this season, ninth of his career, and it was just about all he and the Giants needed in a 2-1 victory that extends their winning ways against lousy teams before the stretch from hell next month. Bumgarner was effective in his day job, too, allowing an earned run and five hits in a seven-strikeout performance over seven innings. All in all, this was an afternoon that reminded us that he still can be a one-man gang when necessary, such a double-edged weapon that manager Bruce Bochy was ready to let him bat in the bottom of the seventh even as Bumgarner was about to be relieved by Sergio Romo.
“He’s a threat up there,” Bochy said. “What’s impressive is, he’s made himself into a pretty good hitter. He can get a base hit. He’s worked hard at it. It just goes to show how a pitcher can help himself besides just throwing the ball.”
“The best swing of the day was the one Bumgarner hit,” marveled A’s manager Bob Melvin. “You have to treat him like a DH. You’re certainly not going to walk the No. 8 hitter to get to him.”
So, yes, you can say MadBum is advancing his folk tale somewhat in the encore to his Terminator October. But what he hasn’t done, astonishingly enough, is keep up with other pitchers who have one-upped him in drama and superlatives. As he was improving to 11-5, Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels was in Wrigley Field pitching a no-hitter against the Chicago Cubs, who now have even more incentive to acquire his services and make the wild-card race more challenging for the Giants. Then we look “down south” — general manager Bobby Evans’ description of the Dodgers — and see history being made in ways that would match Bumgarner’s Herculean autumn if we weren’t still in July. Not since Cy Young himself, 110 years ago, has a pitcher produced three consecutive scoreless starts with no walks and at least 10 strikeouts, which is what Clayton Kershaw has done lately. Over his last 11 starts, he has a 1.21 earned-run average, 112 strikeouts and only 11 walks. His fellow players didn’t vote him to the National League All-Star team. Bochy didn’t originally have him on the pitching staff, either, and didn’t come to his senses until an extra spot opened. But Kershaw is better than Kershaw ever has been.
And he’s not even the best pitcher on his own team. That would be Zack Greinke, who has returned to the Dodgers after his wife delivered their first child and looks to extend a 43 2/3-inning scoreless streak today in New York against the Mets. His ERA in 0.46 in his last eight starts. In July, Greinke and Kershaw have a combined ERA of 0.16.
All of which makes Bumgarner’s season almost look ordinary. Truth is, he hasn’t had his best stuff of late — including early in Saturday’s outing, when he struggled with his command and was knocked around by potential future teammate Ben Zobrist — and has struggled this month to get through six innings. It has led to whispers that his massive workload has become oppressive and counterproductive. He says he feels fine, but do they ever tell us the truth about these matters? The fact remains that Bumgarner pitched 270 innings last year, 52 2/3 in the postseason, which was the heaviest duty for a 25-and-under pitcher since 2000. Do not view this in any way as a knock on Bochy; he rode Bumgarner as he should have to another World Series championship, and we’d expect him to do the same in a similar circumstance this fall. It’s just that Bumgarner, as a human being and not a cyborg, can’t be expected to continue as the ultimate pitching plowhorse without some slippage in performance, if not wear and tear.
If he retired from baseball tomorrow, of course, his legend would be intact. The Giants would build him a statue, and on it would be a quote from Kansas City manager Ned Yost, who said, “When I go back and try to re-evaluate our playoff run, I look at it and say, OK, we lost four games during the entire playoffs, And three of the games were a direct result from Madison Bumgarner’s performances. As hard as it is to swallow, it was a historic performance. You can’t take that away from him. I think without Madison Bumgarner, we’d be world champions right now.” The question this season was whether he’d maintain that level of dominance. By the standards of Greinke and Kershaw, at least presently, MadBum has regressed a bit, with his ERA at a respectable but hardly extraordinary 3.16. This isn’t to say he won’t reach down and discover renewed vitality in a 6-5, 240-pound body that looks sturdier than some of the machinery on his North Carolina farm, but with Evans continuing to downplay the need for another front-end starter, even as Bochy drops hints that he’d like an arm this week before the trade deadline, it’s clear Bumgarner must step up his game in the coming weeks to ensure another postseason excursion. The home runs are nice, but when we project October, we’re seeing Kershaw, Greinke, Hamels, Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole and potentially Johnny Cueto and David Price pitching for the opposition. He can’t have any MadBummer moments if the Giants want to go far.
Not that he’s thinking beyond today. When it was mentioned to him in the clubhouse that the Giants have won 10 of their last 11, he wasn’t terribly impressed. Bumgarner promoted an axiom that is humdrum to us but works for him: One day at a time.
“Winning. Winning today. And then winning tomorrow,” he said of the approach. “I didn’t know we’d won 10 of 11. I couldn’t tell you what we did yesterday or two weeks ago. We’re focused on the game we’re playing today. We’ll come in and be focused on the game tomorrow. We’ll continue with that mindset.”
Nor does Bumgarner seem to think another big arm is needed to accompany him and rookie sensation Chris Heston. “We’re pretty squared away. We’ve got a good club we’re throwing out there every day, playing hard,” he said.
The fans certainly adore him, buying enough of his jerseys to make his No. 40 the best-seller among all major-league players. Once overloaded with Buster Posey garb, AT&T Park is now split between Paul Bunyan and Mr. Hugs. When his hand-picked song, “Fire on the Mountain,” comes over the speakers before the first pitch, it puts all the paying customers in a comfort zone. But they were shocked Saturday when Marcus Semien, the A’s leadoff batter, ripped a shot inches foul of the left-field pole. Those moments have happened more often than the Giants and their fans want to let on.
Mental fatigue would be an understandable issue. Life for Madison Bumgarner has been overwhelming since his magical month, and these days, a minute hardly passes without another of his commercials airing on TV. He has tried to cut back on distractions — it was a blessing that he couldn’t attend the ESPY Awards, where LeBron James (who lost in the NBA Finals, I recall) was handed the award for Best Championship Performance only as a reward for showing up in Los Angeles. But before MadBum spoke to the media Saturday, he had to put on a beanie. Wasn’t it too warm for headwear, especially with his long mane?
A closer look showed a logo for Carhartt, a clothing line. You’ve seen the ad where he says, “Working with my hands is a big deal for me. Because I can’t stand having — you know — sissy hands, soft hands.”
No one ever will call him a sissy. He’s a legend, and, now more than ever, in a universe with Kershaw and Greinke, the Giants need sustained dominance from that legend.