In Madison Bumgarner, Giants turn to the future, and it's bright

Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 1, 2010; 1:31 AM


There's a reason his nickname is "the Future."

There's a reason the Giants dropped their highest-paid player, $16 million southpaw Barry Zito, off their postseason roster to make room for a rookie.

And there's just cause why at 21 years and 91 days, Madison Bumgarner, a big southpaw from North Carolina who's now the toast of San Francisco, joined the list of youngest pitchers to start a World Series game after Bullet Joe Bush, Jim Palmer, Fernando Valenzuela and Johnny Podres. Palmer did better. But not much.

After watching Bumgarner pitch eight overpowering, scoreless innings of three-hit ball against the Texas Rangers in Game 4 of this Series, everybody knows why the baseball waters have parted for the kid with the Carolina drawl and no apparent pulse.

What Bumgarner did to the American League's top-hitting team, dropping the Rangers into a three-games-to-one deficit with a 4-0 win, he may well do to the rest of baseball for many years. The only reason Bumgarner didn't become the second youngest man to pitch a Series shutout, behind Palmer, is because he got the hook after 106 pitches. Why? To protect the Future, of course.

"I can't say enough about what he did tonight, I mean, 21-year-old kid on that stage pitching like that," Giants Manager Bruce Bochy said. "He had it all working."

Recently, Bumgarner, from Hickory, N.C., said nothing could be more pressure than the Carolina state championship in '07, the year he was drafted No. 10 overall. "Sounds ridiculous," said Bumgarner, laughing at himself. "Obviously this is way bigger…I didn't expect this in my wildest dreams."

But others have, ever since he rang up mythological numbers roaring up through the bush leagues: 34-6 record, 2.00 ERA and 315 strikeouts. His middle initial is "K." In fact, maybe his explosion on this Series scene should not have been unexpected. Of the eight starters in this Series, which had the lowest ERA this year? Cliff Lee or Tim Lincecum, who'll meet in Game 5 on Monday? Or Matt Cain with his 0.00 post-season ERA? No, it was Bumgarner with a 3.00 ERA in 111 innings with 96 strikeouts.

When the super pitching kids who emerged in '10 are finally sorted out someday, it may not be Stephen Strasburg, Mat Latos, Jaime Garcia or any of the others who rank highest, but this lefty with the easy gas, the three-quarter-arm delivery that breeds longevity, the polished control and three other superior pitches besides his 94 mph heat who leaves the largest mark.

"He's fearless. He's a big kid with a funky delivery who attacks," said the Giants' Aubrey Huff, who grew up here and came to more than 100 Rangers games as a kid, but blasted an enormous two-run homer down the right field line in the third inning to give Bumgarner all the runs he needed.

Why wouldn't a small lead be enough? In two-third of his starts with the Giants, he allowed two runs or less. And in his last six starts, he only gave up five runs. This gem was right on schedule.

Some lucky folks got a glimpse of this, a foreshadowing. After he was called up in late June, he only pitched in nine cities besides San Francisco. But the most memorable was probably Washington in July.

On a Friday night, Strasburg beat the Giants, holding them to one run in six innings. He had three overpowering pitches and command of them all. Two days later, Bumgarner, more than a year younger than Starsburg, matched the phenom of the age; he beat the Nats, holding them to the same one run in six innings.

That Sunday, Bumgarner, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound duplicate of Strasburg for physique, had four pitches under full command, a syrupy three-quarter-arm southpaw delivery that seemed to say "longevity" and an ability to make hitters look helpless that almost approached Strasburg.

Both clubhouses buzzed with the parallels. Strasburg was more amazing. But what on earth would Bumgarner become? From the day he arrived in the majors, he topped out around 95 mph. His slider, which looked like it started out of the second baseman's shirt, dove at the feet of right-handed hitters as they swung above it. His slow curve, at 75 mph, offered ridiculously effective contrast to his heat. Perhaps most alarming to hitters, he had a superior change-up and control.

"We couldn't get anything mustered against him…He didn't throw one pitch at the same speed. He moved the ball around. He kept the ball on the ground," Rangers Manager Ron Washington said. "And they made some great defensive plays."

The Giants held Bumgarner back until Game 4 out of deference to another lefty, Jonathan Sanchez, who is six years older and a four-year vet in their rotation. As rattled as Sanchez has looked at times in this postseason, if there is a Game 7, for which Sanchez would be scheduled, they may wish it were Bumgarner who had the ball in his hand instead.

Before this game, the kid said all the proper, humble things, perhaps lulling the Rangers vets to sleep a bit, while also telling the truth. "Oh, it's been amazing. It's been a fun ride," Bumgarner said of his season. "Right now, I'm just going to try to treat it like any other game. And then after it's over with, look back and be like, wow, you just pitched in the World Series!"

What about his nerves? In this postseason, he'd been 1-0 with a win over the Braves and a 3.55 ERA in three games. "The night before, I'm going to try to do stuff to keep my mind off of it," he said. "That way I can rest easier and not have so much anxiety leading up to the game."

Maybe the Rangers should have had the anxiety. But how were they to know that the first all-rookie battery to start a World Series game since Yogi Berra and Spec Shea in '47 could be so good? Catcher Buster Posey finished the scoring with a 410-foot homer and, just like Shea, Bumgarner got the win.

"Ever since we met in instructional league we hit it off, pretty good friends," Bumgarner said of Posey, a tandem whose names may now be paired for years. "We're always on the same page out there in the game. I trust him 100 percent. Whatever he puts down I want to throw. Besides that, he's a great catcher."

The Giants arrived in this Series considered underdogs because they relied on three aces, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Sanchez, plus Posey as their infant cleanup man. How much else did they really have, besides closer Brian "Fear the Beard" Wilson?

In Game 4, all of baseball found out the answer. The Giants had a fourth ace as well. He's arrived now. And the Giants are just one win from their first title since moving to California.

"This is what you want to do every year. And we've got the team to do it," Bumgarner said.

Is it possible that he's glimpsed the Future?

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