Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 23, 2014

October’s King Of The Hill

With the ALCS ending in the minimum four games and the NLCS going only one more, there was plenty of time before the start of the World Series for pundits and fans to weigh in on the two teams slated to meet in the Fall Classic. San Francisco versus Kansas City is not exactly a historic rivalry. Up until Game One on Tuesday the strongest connections between the two cities were that Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana finished his career in the latter after winning four Super Bowls in the former, and that Kansas City won a national competition to become the first location for Bay area-based Google’s high-speed fiber-optic Internet network. But if stories couldn’t focus on time-tested aspects of a proven rivalry between the Giants and Royals, stories still had to be told.

Into the breach came speculation about a San Francisco dynasty, with the Giants going for their third title in five seasons after winning in 2010 and 2012. But while that feat would be most impressive, “dynasty” seems a bit of a stretch since in the odd-numbered years San Francisco didn’t even make the playoffs. Meanwhile the favored storyline for the Royals was how they were becoming America’s darlings as their amazing undefeated run through the postseason after nearly three decades in the October wilderness unfolded. During the Championship Series ESPN magically determined that fans in 47 of the 50 states were pulling for the Royals to beat the Orioles. The Wall Street Journal followed with a somewhat tongue in cheek analysis that determined Kansas City was the least hateable of the 10 playoff teams.

The Royals sprint to the World Series was a great story, and the fact that it came in their first postseason appearance since 1985 only added to its luster. That it all began with an 8th inning rally against a proven playoff performer in the person of Oakland’s Jon Lester, when Kansas City trailed by four runs in the Wild Card game with just five outs remaining, made it seem magical. When after that the Royals won close game after close game, and every managerial decision by Ned Yost somehow seemed to work out, Kansas City became this year’s Team of Destiny.

Except of course that in the Great Game, nothing is preordained. On Tuesday the Kansas City magic ran headlong into the towering reality of Madison Bumgarner. The 6 foot 5 inch San Francisco left hander is only 25, but he was making his 12th postseason appearance and 11th start. It’s a time of year when Bumgarner shines. In 2010 he became the youngest moundsman to appear in the postseason in the long history of the Giants franchise when he earned the win in the NLDS clinching game against Atlanta. He threw eight shutout innings against the Rangers in that year’s World Series, a performance that made him the youngest pitcher in baseball history to record a scoreless Series start of six innings or more.

When the Giants returned to the playoffs in 2012, Bumgarner turned in his only two poor postseason performances, failing to get out of the 5th inning against the Reds in the NLDS and being lifted in the 4th against the Cardinals in the NLCS. But in the Series against Detroit Bumgarner regained his postseason mojo, extending his Fall Classic scoreless streak by throwing seven shutout innings in Game Two as San Francisco rolled to another title.

During this year’s regular season Bumgarner established himself as the Giants ace, setting career highs for wins with 18, innings pitched with 217 1/3 and strikeouts with 219. Tapped by manager Bruce Bochy for the Wild Card play-in game against Pittsburgh, he went the distance, allowing just four hits while striking out ten in San Francisco’s 4-0 victory. He was outpitched by Doug Fister in losing to the Nationals in the NLDS, but rebounded against the Cardinals in the Championship Series. On the road for Game One, Bumgarner silenced the crowd in St. Louis with 7 2/3 innings of shutout ball. Then in the decisive Game Five he matched Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright for 8 innings in a contest eventually decided by Travis Ishikawa’s walk-off homer in the bottom of the 9th.

So it was really no surprise when Bumgarner turned in yet another masterful postseason performance in Game One Tuesday night. There was no Kansas City magic against his four-seam fastball. The supposed Team of Destiny was derailed by his cutter. Staked to a quick three run lead by a Pablo Sandoval RBI double and a Hunter Pence two-run homer in the 1st, Bumgarner yielded just three hits while walking one over 7 innings. At one point he retired twelve Royals in a row before Salvador Perez finally ended Bumgarner’s World Series scoreless innings streak at 21 2/3 with a solo home run in the last of the 7th. But by that time the Giants had plated four more runs on their way to a 7-1 win.

With the victory Bumgarner is now 6-3 in the postseason, with an ERA of 2.54. Pitching in the playoffs, he has allowed less than one base runner per inning, with a WHIP of 0.969. Bumgarner’s World Series numbers are breath-taking. A record of 3-0, ERA of 0.41 and WHIP of 0.591.

Of course what he can’t do is pitch every day, though he very well might like to give it a try. Wednesday night in Game Two Kansas City struck back, scoring five runs against Giants starter Jake Peavy and four relievers in the 6th inning to break open a game that had been deadlocked at 2-2. The World Series is now shortened to a best of five, with San Francisco holding a nominal edge since three of the remaining games will be played in AT&T Park. Perhaps in the end the supposed Team of Destiny will still prevail. But with Bumgarner slated to throw in Game Five, and perhaps again on short rest in a possible Game Seven, it seems likely that in order to do so the Royals will have to figure out how to beat the Pitcher of the Postseason.

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