The greatest moments in baseball tend to possess an element of surprise, deciding a game or flipping a narrative on a single play and in a matter of seconds. The adrenaline spike from a home run or a stellar defensive play is memorable for being unexpected, but the drawback is that you can't, in the moment, realize it for what it is or how it will go down in collective memory. Madison Bumgarner's legendary Game 7 wasn't like that at all. Somewhere around the seventh or eighth inning, you knew you were probably seeing something you'll tell your kids about, and, hopefully, you got to enjoy his five-inning save as history-making as well as on its own dominant terms.
(You will bear with us and everyone else today as we fight a losing battle with our hyperbolic and hagiographic instincts. But I don't think it's possible to overemphasize this: The Giants don't win the World Series without Madison Bumgarner, and they don't win it unless Bumgarner was near-flawless over 21 innings.)
The thing is, if we don't heap praise on Bumgarner, he's not going to. In his interview just after recording the final out, he could not have sounded less excited. When the Fox cameras found him in the Giants dugout a few innings from the finish line, he was yawning. He is 25 years old, and has won three championships, and does not appear to see what the big deal is. Which would explain so much. "I don't think he has a heartbeat," Matt Cain said.
A pitcher's mindset is unique—this is a polite way of saying most are a little crazy—and almost necessarily fragile. They are creatures of routine. Even the best starter can be completely thrown off by having to get warm in a matter of minutes, and by entering a game from the bullpen. Not the unruffleable Bumgarner. "It doesn't matter which way you come from," he said. "When you get out there, it's the same thing."
The question of Bumgarner's involvement—and how long he'd go—was the story of Game 7 even before it started. Pregame, Royals manager Ned Yost indulged in what must have been a bit of wishful thinking. "Bumgarner's a great starting pitcher," he said matter-of-factly. "We'll see what kind of reliever he is."
Afterward, after he had seen, he finally recognized the inevitability. "Yeah," Yost said, "it was hopeless."
(One of my favorite footnotes to the game is how, in every comment about Bumgarner's performance, catcher Buster Posey couldn't help but use the language and math of a game started. "He had a little trouble in the first," is how Posey referred to the fifth inning. But Posey said he settled down "once he went out for the second." In Posey's mind, this was a start, only with Bumgarner being handed a lead before he ever took the mound. That's deadly.)
Bumgarner came in roughly when he had expected, but stayed in longer than he figured he would. Before the game, he was chatting with Jeremy Affeldt, and the two surmised that starter Tim Hudson would be on a short leash. Depending on how long Hudson lasted, both men assumed Bumgarner's role would be to get the game to the eighth or ninth, to Sergio Romo or Santiago Casilla.
"He came up to me before the game and said, 'What do you think?' San Francisco reliever Jeremy Affeldt said while Travis Ishikawa was emptying a beer bottle over all the quadrants of his head. "I said, 'I think they'll go to you early, and you'll probably be the bridge to the back end of the bullpen.'
Maybe that was Bruce Bochy's plan, but we'll never know because Bumgarner was too good for Bochy to dare consider taking him out. After giving up a leadoff single to Omar Infante, he retired 14 Royals in a row. Even observers, who pay more heed to pitch counts and rest days than do either Bochy or Bumgarner, were cowed into accepting that there was no controversy here, that Bumgarner was going to pitch until he couldn't, because there were no better options in the bullpen or anywhere else on earth.
"I wasn't even thinking about the bullpen," Bochy admitted. And then, jokingly (or maybe just quasi-jokingly), Bochy said he stayed away from Bumgarner in between innings because he didn't want his pitcher to be able to tell him if he was getting tired.
Inside the Giants, there was brief concern when Bumgarner's radar-gun readings in his first inning of work weren't quite up to snuff. Pitching coach Dave Righetti explained:
"Normally a starter comes out — because he's got all his time to warm up, he's got his best heater, and it probably drops down in the second inning," Righetti said of a reliever. "That's almost every guy. He had to start the other way. As a reliever — and not a closer — he had to build. I think he was at 90 and 91, and he was in the stretch right away. He had to go into a slide step right away. So he pitched. He got out of it."
Righetti continued: "The next inning he went out a little early and started to loosen up a little better. I think he went up to 93 then, and he was in his normal range."
Bumgarner's fastball stayed right where it was supposed to be through the end of the game, and used it to record all three outs in the ninth. It's fitting, because the version of Madison Bumgarner that tore through baseball from the second half of the season on has relied on his four-seamer as an out pitch in a way he never had before. It's worth reading Eno Sarris and Jeff Sullivan on this, but Bumgarner tweaked his mound positioning in a way that allowed him to get his fastball up and in on righties. So he got Eric Hosmer swinging on a high fastball to start the ninth, got Billy Butler to chase a high fastball to foul out for the second out, and mowed down Salvador Perez with six straight high fastballs—all either 92 or 93 mph—to finish things off.
"I knew Perez was going to want to do something big," Bumgarner said. "I had a really good chance, too. We tried to use that aggressiveness and throw our pitches up in the zone. It's a little bit higher than high, I guess."
Maybe Bumgarner's arm falls off one day. Maybe he breaks down early, and we all shake our heads and pretend we knew (or would have cared, had we known) that Bochy has been burning out a star before our eyes. That debate—over the health and use of young pitchers—is always going to be moot as long as we're blown away by bell-cow pitching performances like last night's. And it's damn near physically impossible not to be impressed; Bumgarner pitched himself into legend, and if his career suffers for it, well, that'll be just part of the legend too.
But a World Series Game 7 exists outside of normal time. Nothing after it matters, because there is nothing after. Bumgarner has a winter to rest. Few have deserved it more.
"You know what?" Bumgarner said, when it was all over. "I can't lie to you anymore.
"I'm a little tired now."