Think back to the spring, when you had dandelions twixt your toes, imagining about what the 2014 season was going to be like. When people asked me for my thoughts on the season, I had a thousand variations on the same theme: Good, flawed team that should contend.
Cut to August 21: The Giants are a good, flawed team that's contending. Exactly what they were supposed to be, except they took a rather odd path to get there. And they're stressful, man. I guess every team without a 10-game lead is stressful, but there's something about this team that makes me want to give up after every first-inning dinger from the other team. Yet here they are, winning a second series in a row, staying in position for a playoff game, and hanging around the Dodgers just enough to make them nervous.
The way they won on Thursday night was the way a good team should win. Who's the best pitcher? That guy. Okay, well he just pitched a whale of a game, striking Cubs out all over the place and getting out of tight spots. Who are the best hitters on the team? Uh, that guy and that guy. Great, they just clobbered the ball all over the place, scoring runs and driving them in. What's the unquestioned strength of the team? The bullpen. Swell, they were dynamite on Thursday, just as they usually are.
That was a blueprint game. That was the game you had in your mind's eye when you imagined a contending Giants team. Madison Bumgarner was dominant, early tomfoolery aside. Buster Posey hit the ball hard. Pablo Sandoval was impossible to pitch to. Role players made minor contributions. The bullpen ... actually, I thought the bullpen was going to be the problem this year, so that's more of a pleasant surprise than anything else.
Still, there's your good Giants team. They might not show up tomorrow. Or they might show up every day until the last week of September, when they text you "lol j/k" and lose seven straight at the worst possible time. I have no idea. But if you wanted to look at a crisp, clean, normal Giants game with a happy ending, that one will do. That one will do just fine.
Earlier in the day, I wrote about the possible playoff matchups, grading them. I was looking at the Nationals and thinking of how they'd match up against the Giants in a five- or seven-game series and just laughed and laughed. They have four starters -- four! -- who are comparable to Bumgarner. How are the Giants in the same professional league as them? How is that possible?
Then a game like this comes along and makes me think the Giants aren't so enigmatic after all. Do that, that, and the other thing, and they can be quite good. I don't not believe.
A list of Giants starts with one walk or fewer and 12 strikeouts or more in a start, from Baseball Reference:
My, that's a pretty list. I wish I had video of that Hammaker game, just to see what he was like in his prime. I wish I had a tattoo of that Hubbell game, just because. But it's a good way to show you how rare Madison Bumgarner's feat was. Yes, it's a different, high-strikeout era, and over the next 20 years there might be 200 examples, so it's not like Bumgarner hit three triples and stole home three times. It's still something we're not used to seeing every day, a pitcher missing bats like that while keeping the ball in the strike zone.
One of my favorite at-bats of the year came in the seventh inning, Bumgarner against Javier Baez. Now, Baez is a rookie who doesn't know the definition of nuance. Pablo Sandoval sees him swing and says, "Jeez, calm down and wait for your pitch, guy." He has a lot to learn. Until he learns it, though, he's fascinating and terrifying -- the all-or-nothing hitter you never want to see with the tying runs on base. Mike Krukow mentioned that Baez chased high fastballs in the previous at-bats.
High fastball that isn't quite high enough. Baez fouls it back.
Krukow says they're going back there again. I'm thinking about the element of surprise and wrapping a curve around the outside of the zone. Posey sets up high.
High fastball. Baez waves through it.
Krukow says that Bumgarner and Baez know exactly what's coming next. I'm panicked at this point. What if it misses? What if he has the sandovalian ability to hit a pitch at his nose? What if?
High fastball. Baez waves through it. Bumgarner lets out a war whoop. Inning over. The game's effectively over. It happened with all fastballs. I was wearing my Bumgarner footie pajamas and clutching my framed Bumgarner portrait, but I still didn't feel like I was appreciating him enough. It was an at-bat with the potential to be ghastly, but it ended up being the defining matchup of the game. Baez might be the next Alfonso Soriano, or he might be the next Alex Rodriguez. For a night, though, he was just a guy who couldn't catch up with the pitches Madison Bumgarner was throwing. When you put it like that, he was just a regular guy. One of the fellas. And proud we are of him.
The Lamentation of Pence pic.twitter.com/XK8VM8yIMF— Justin Bopp (@justinbopp) August 22, 2014
Madison Bumgarner has 13 RBI, the second-most in San Francisco Giants history for a pitcher. There are a bunch of guys from New York back in the days when they used armadillo skin and turnip roots to make baseballs, but they don't count. When it comes to pitchers in the modern era, there's Juan Marichal and there's Madison Bumgarner.
Bumgarner's just two behind.
Stray thought: We sure don't talk about Santiago Casilla as much as we could be talking about him. With that appearance, he moved into a tie with Christy Mathewson as the best pitcher in Giants history. By raw ERA. Which is deceptive and reductive in 30 different ways.
Still, I'm sticking to it. Best pitcher in Giants history, give or take. And he could have been a real drag when he took over the closer's role. He wasn't.