Giants ace Madison Bumgarner didn't seem to have his best stuff during Game 5 of the NLCS, and was particularly let down by his cutter. It was flat, non-biting versions of that pitch that yielded an RBI double to Jon Jay and a solo home run to Tony Cruz Jr. (Matt Adams also took him deep on a curveball that hung a little.) The fact that Bumgarner was able to work through eight innings with one of his best pitches failing him is a testament to his abilities as well as the effectiveness of his other best pitch: his fastball, which just keeps getting better.
We've marveled at Madison Bumgarner's fastball before, which stands out as one of the most satisfyingly effective pitches in the league because it comes across the plate at 92 mph but produces the kinds of results usually reserved for a pitch with much greater velocity.
We saw more of the same last night. According to Brooks Baseball, Bumgarner threw 56 fastballs compared to 14 curves and 27 cutters, and his fastball elicited one less whiff (8) than those other two pitches combined, and none of the five hits he surrendered came from the fastball. What's different about this performance, though, is that Bumgarner was throwing his fastball much harder than he usually does. By Pitch f/x's measurements, Bumgarner's average fastball velocity was 94 mph last night, a noticeable notch above his usual baseline velocity.
Bumgarner's fastball velocity has actually been trending steadily upward throughout the season, an impressive feat for a guy who despite being just 25 years old has logged nearly 1,000 regular-season innings over the last five years. (Chart via Brooks Baseball):
With the pitch coming in a little harder than usual, Bumgarner was able to keep the Cardinals at bay. He didn't get many strikeouts—although five isn't bad when your secondary pitches aren't working—but he was still able to overpower the Cardinals with his fastball and keep them from doing too much damage.
There were a few at-bats in particular that typified Bumgarner's approach. In the top of the second, Bumgarner had to deal with one of the Cardinals' hottest postseason hitters, Kolten Wong. Bumgarner fed him four straight fastballs up in the zone (an area where the pitch is very effective), and Wong couldn't do anything with them. He took a few big cuts in the at-bat, fouling off two pitches and whiffing on one, before sending an easy pop-up to short.
It was more of the same during a third-inning sequence. After surrendering that double to Jon Jay with a flat cutter, Bumgarner finished the inning with nothing but fastballs. He got Matt Holliday to fly out to center, and then did this to Jhonny Peralta:
Bumgarner went right back to peppering the top of the zone, and got Peralta to swing through the second and third pitches before leaving one low and in that Peralta lined out to left.
This, I suppose, is what "bearing down" looks like. Bumgarner didn't have his full repertoire working, but he still managed to pitch a gem in the biggest game of the season by bumping a little extra juice into his best pitch and refusing to back down from the Cardinals' lineup. If he keeps throwing his fastball like this in the World Series, and his cutter returns to full effectiveness, the Royals are going to be in trouble.