KANSAS CITY, Mo. - In sizing up this World Series, an obvious advantage for the San Francisco Giants should be Game 1 starter Madison Bumgarner, the only ace who actually has pitched like one this October.
Bumgarner has made the most starts (four) and racked up the most innings (312/3) with the lowest ERA (1.42). He also has struck out 28 with five walks and earned NLCS MVP honors after going 1-0 with a 1.72 ERA in two starts against the Cardinals.
As if Bruce Bochy wasn't feeling good enough about sending Bumgarner to the mound for Tuesday night's opener, teams that take Game 1 proceed to win the World Series 62.4 percent of the time, including 10 of the last 11 and 15 of 17.
We'd say that's a pretty decent edge, if not for one other telling statistic. The Royals are on a record 8-0 tear through October with a rotation averaging less than six innings per start. Their supposed ace, "Big Game'' James Shields, has a 5.63 ERA and is getting ripped at a .309/.365/.485 clip.
So how do we measure the value of a Bumgarner? He's a huge reason the Giants are playing for their third ring in five seasons, and now we'll get the chance to see just how much a solitary ace like Bumgarner can impose his will on the World Series -- if only for two, possibly three starts.
"I think that's what separates you -- the average from the good ones,'' Bochy said. "The good ones are the ones that are able to handle themselves and even raise their level of playing in games like this.''
The Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, on the verge of his third Cy Young Award, wasn't able to do it. Or at least not past the sixth inning. He twice was tripped up in the seventh during the Division Series against the Cardinals, including Game 4, when he threw what had to be the worst curveball of his career in the biggest moment.
So why does an elite pitcher such as Kershaw suffer two critical seventh-inning meltdowns in the same series, including that clinching home run by Matt Adams, while Bumgarner tends to mostly finish what he starts?
"Mentally, he's as tough as anyone I've ever played with,'' Tim Hudson said. "His will to win. How he never gives in to hitters.
"Every great pitcher in the history of the game, when you take the field, you have to believe you're the best player out there. He loves that stage.''
Hudson knows what he's talking about, but at 39, he's not the intimidator he used to be. In fact, Bumgarner is surrounded by past-their-prime starters who must rely on him to provide momentum.
Could the Giants win this World Series without an A-plus performance from Bumgarner? Sure. Their bullpen, at 5-1 with a 1.78 ERA and .164 BAA, has been on par with the Royals' relievers. But the majority of the Giants' 351/3 innings has come from bailing out the other starters, with Bumgarner giving them a breather. Take him out of the equation, and that Giants group gets a little more taxed.
"You don't ever want to get the ball taken away from you,'' Bumgarner said. "I feel like if you're out there making pitches and throwing strikes, getting ahead of guys, then chances are you're going to be out there for a while.''
Bumgarner makes it all sound so simple. He says he never watches video of opponents before his starts -- a rarity in this tech-heavy era -- but squeezed in a quick nod to scouting reports before a reporter moved on to another subject.
It's not that easy. These playoffs are littered with No. 1s who stumbled along with their teams -- Kershaw, Jon Lester, Adam Wainwright, Justin Verlander, Edinson Volquez, Max Scherzer. And the Royals have succeeded almost in spite of Shields rather than because of him.
So Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium, the stage again will belong to the 6-5, 235-pound Bumgarner, the last ace standing. A 25-year-old lefthander pitching for his third World Series ring, this time in the lead role instead of supporting Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain.
A battle of the bullpens? This World Series? The best way Bumgarner knows to shorten a game is to finish it.