By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 1, 2010; 1:58 AM
ARLINGTON, TEX. - Game 4, historically, is the untamed stepchild of the World Series, the one in which teams typically send out their least-trusted starting pitchers and pray for the best - the domain of the Joe Blantons, Andy Sonnanstines and Brandon Backes of the world. But as has become evident this postseason, the San Francisco Giants do not own just any starting rotation, and Madison Bumgarner is not just any No. 4 starter.
Thanks to Bumgarner, and the Giants' faith in their 21-year-old rookie left-hander, the Giants are on the verge of history. With a decisive 4-0 win over the Texas Rangers on Sunday night at stunned-silent Rangers Ballpark, the Giants took a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series and can clinch the franchise's first World Series title in 56 years as soon as Monday night.
On the final day of October, a crowd of 51,920 saw the Rangers crumble before this unstoppable force, the Giants, that has emerged out of the ether over the course of baseball's biggest month. They watched in horror as Bumgarner, his face covered in adolescent fuzz, threw eight brilliant, scoreless innings. They drew hands to their faces as Aubrey Huff and Buster Posey slammed home runs.
And they stood in place, frozen and silent, when Giants closer Brian Wilson came in for the ninth and secured the only three outs not already spoken for by Bumgarner.
Being up 3-1 "is great," Huff said. "But this is the playoffs, and teams are capable of winning three straight. We've got to go back out there tomorrow and go back to work, act like we're down 1-3."
As the evening began, the World Series felt as if it could go either way, with this game as the fulcrum. The Giants held a one-game lead - and they have Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain starting in Games 5 and 6 - but the Rangers had these two games at home, and a suddenly dominant pitcher, right-hander Colby Lewis, ready to start a potential Game 7.
But now, after their loss, the Rangers need to win behind ace Cliff Lee in Monday night's Game 5 just to send the series back to San Francisco, where they would have to win twice more in a stadium, AT&T Park, where they were outscored, 20-7, in the first two games of this series.
What has happened to the Rangers' vaunted offense - the one that blistered the New York Yankees' pitching staff for 38 runs during the ALCS? After being shut out just five times all year, they have put up zeroes against the Giants twice in the span of four days.
"We know how good their pitching staff is," said Jeff Francoeur, the Rangers' right fielder. "They won with pitching all year, and they've won with pitching in this series."
Bumgarner, who at 21 years 3 months became the youngest pitcher to start a World Series game since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981, received plenty of help in shutting down the Rangers.
There were scorchers hit directly at his fielders, a potential single up the middle that Bumgarner himself deflected with his glove, leading to an out. There was a leaping, snow-cone catch of a liner by second baseman Freddy Sanchez in the second, and a nifty, sliding catch in left field by Cody Ross. There was a base stealer thrown out by Posey, and a pair of tough double plays turned by his infield. There were close calls that went the Giants' way on the bases.
"Not many breaks for us," Rangers third baseman Michael Young said. "But that's usually not the reason you get shut out."
Indeed, it was primarily Bumgarner's own mastery that carried him through. He struck out Rangers slugger Vladimir Guerrero three times, becoming the first left-hander to do that to Guerrero in 12 years. Through his first six innings, he allowed only three balls to leave the infield.
"He hides the ball really well," Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton said. "It's like the ball appears out of nowhere."
Bumgarner didn't allow a Ranger to reach second base until the seventh, when Texas put two on against him with two outs and the Giants leading by three. Giants Manager Bruce Bochy displayed enormous faith in Bumgarner there, allowing him to face the potential tying run with his pitch count at 90, and Bumgarner coaxed a soft liner to left from Ian Kinsler to end the inning.
Afterward, he strolled back to his dugout, appearing as if his pulse rate never rose above 50.
"I just keep telling myself to relax," Bumgarner said. "I've told myself [that] so much, it's starting to become second nature."
And when Bochy ran him back out there for the eighth, Bumgarner pitched a 1-2-3 inning - the first two outs both rockets to left - finishing his night's duties by freezing Mitch Moreland, the Rangers' Game 3 hero, with a big, slow hook.
"He's a special talent," Bochy said, "and we're grateful we have him."
If Bumgarner defied the stereotype of the Game 4 starter, Rangers starter Tommy Hunter defined it. The stocky right-hander hadn't made it through the sixth inning of any of his last four starts, dating to the regular season. In each of his two previous postseason starts, he had collected only 12 outs.
It seemed only a matter of time before the Giants cracked him, and Huff was the one who did it, crushing a first-pitch, 86-mph cutter into the seats down the right-field line with one on and one out in the third, putting the Giants up, 2-0.
Hunter's misleading 13-4 record masks the fact he simply doesn't have a put-away pitch; he got his first swing-and-miss from a Giants batter on his 79th pitch, deep into the fourth inning. He also seemed surprised at the Giants' ability to draw out long at-bats by taking close pitches and fouling back tough strikes.
"No, no, no," Hunter said when asked if that's what the Rangers' scouting reports said about the Giants' hitters. "They battled up there. I can't even tell you how many balls they fouled off."
Still, when the Rangers got Hunter out of the game following the fourth, having only allowed two runs, it felt as if they had gotten away with something. Hamilton had saved one run with a brilliant diving catch in shallow center. But the Giants left plenty of other runs on the bases.
That feeling of dread, though, assumes a lack of faith in Bumgarner, as if the kid was bound to give up a few runs, as if the slim lead was not enough. And that feeling was nowhere to be found in the Giants' dugout, where their faith in Bumgarner is unwavering - and is bound to grow from here.