SAN FRANCISCO — Joe Maddon, the horn-rimmed-glasses- wearing, red-wine-sipping, distinctively graying raconteur, was asked to ponder the meaning of Madison Bumgarner. Immediately, his mind drifted to where he stationed himself as he led the Cubs to 103 wins this season.
Maddon pointed to a spot at the very top of the dugout, as close to being on the field without actually being on it. From there, he believes he can feel when a pitcher is working with conviction and if he’s “got his [expletive] together.”
And in October, Bumgarner always projects the feeling that he has his [expletive] together.
Such is the challenge facing the Cubs on Monday night in Game 3 of their National League Division Series. Down 2-0 in this best-of-five series, the Giants face elimination, but they have the sport’s greatest October performer in their corner.
“Everybody’s always analyzing numbers, and pitches, and how he does this, and spin rotation and whatever,” Maddon said of Bumgarner. “The guy competes. That’s what sets him apart. It’s not that his stuff is special, it’s really good. But how he competes is what sets him apart.”
Last Wednesday, Bumgarner tossed a four-hit shutout against the Mets in the wild-card game. Every pitch was a masterstroke, from the high fastballs he whizzed by Yoenis Cespedes to the back-foot breaking balls he flicked at the righties in the lineup. Through it all, Bumgarner was unflinching, ruthless.
“I work on being that way,” he said. “And it don’t always happen.”
But in October, it always happens. In 97 1⁄3 postseason innings, Bumgarner owns an 8-3 record and a 1.94 ERA. His three shutouts are tied for second all-time, one shy of equaling the mark held by another great Giant, Christy Mathewson.
“You look at Madison’s body of work, he’s been as good, and I think better, than any pitcher in the postseason,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “And that’s how good he’s been.”
Bumgarner has been at his best with the Giants on the ropes. Facing elimination, they have a nine-game winning streak dating to 2012, and Bumgarner played a direct role in the past three elimination games.
He tossed a four-hit shutout in the 2014 wild-card game against the Pirates and repeated the feat against the Mets last Wednesday. In between, in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, he tossed five scoreless innings in relief to lift the Giants to their last championship.
Taken together, with his team’s season on the line, Bumgarner has pitched 23 straight scoreless innings. It’s why the Giants exuded a measure of confidence despite being one loss from their season coming to an unceremonious end.
“It makes guys even want to win more, play harder,” Bochy said. “I think good players do that; they make the rest of the team better.”
Without a hint of hesitation, Maddon recalled growing up a Cardinals fan. He recalled the way Bob Gibson seized control of the game’s biggest stage, along with Sandy Koufax. In Bumgarner, he sees the same competitiveness, the same conviction.
“You stand right there and I promise you,” Maddon said, looking over at his regular perch in the dugout. “You can feel it.”
He has seen pitchers waver through the years, hoping to hit their spots instead of knowing that they will. Even unnatural competitiveness can’t cure everything.
“Your competitive nature is like a bad antenna,” Maddon said. “The picture goes in and out.”
But with Bumgarner, especially now, the picture is always crystal clear.
The Giants may be down, but they’re a tough out. San Francisco has won its last nine games when it faced elimination, and Madison Bumgarner had a big role in the last three:
Round Result Winning Pitcher
WC Giants 3, Mets 0 Bumgarner
WC Giants 8, Pirates 0 Bumgarner
WS Game 7 Giants 3, Royals 2 Affeldt (Bumgarner save)
NLDS Game 3 Giants 2, Reds 1 Romo
Game 4 Giants 8, Reds 3 Lincecum
Game 5 Giants 6, Reds 4 Cain
NLCS Game 5 Giants 5, Cardinals 0 Zito
Game 6 Giants 6, Cardinals 1 Vogelsong
Game 7 Giants 9, Cardinals 0 Cain