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Revisiting the Bumgarner no-hitters that never were

He might have a World Series MVP, but will Madison Bumgarner ever be as good as Chris Heston?

San Diego Padres v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Madison Bumgarner is a good pitcher. He might not be the pitcher that he was before the Dirt Bike Era, but by Baseball Reference (2.8 rWAR) and Fangraphs (3.4 fWAR) he is still above average.

But despite all his accomplishments across his decade with the San Francisco Giants, one of baseball’s highest individual pitching achievements has continued to elude him: the no-hitter.

I don’t need to tell you about the unlikely string of no-hitters (and one perfect game) that occurred this millennium. For a while, it seemed like an annual no-hitter thrown by a Giants pitcher was a given—and that Bumgarner’s turn would come soon enough. After all, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum had done it; it only made sense that the presumptive staff ace would climb that mountain, too. And besides, if the wildly enigmatic Jonathan Sanchez and the currently unemployed Chris Heston could do that, then heck, how hard could it be for Bumgarner?

Turns out that recording 27 outs without giving up a hit is pretty hard! And with free agency looming, Bumgarner may leave San Francisco without his very own “50 Awesome Things…” article*.

*Unless he manages the feat in either (or both!) of his last two starts this season.

However, the still-good Bumgarner has had his share of flirtations with baseball history. Let’s dig in the knife and relive the what-could-have-beens!

June 28, 2012: 9 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 2 BB, 8 K

Watching a no-hitter in action is a strange thing. Across the first three innings, it’s not that big of a deal—stringing nine outs together without giving up a hit is not particularly uncommon in baseball. It’s only of note because it happens to start the game.

The next three innings, however, are a little more charged. There’s a sense in the stadium and the broadcast booth that something potentially special is happening. No one gives it much attention—mostly not to jinx it, but also because it’s not really special. Recording 12, 15, even 18 outs in a row, while a little more unusual, isn’t that much beyond the realm of possibility. Even the best hitters fail to get a hit 60+ percent of the time.

That’s why no-hit bids that end in the middle three innings don’t feel all that disappointing. Sure, it’s great pitching, but it’s not that remarkable.

That’s where this start falls. This was the first of four complete game one-hitters Bumgarner would throw, and it only feels like a no-hitter that could-have-been if you’re looking at the box score. One reason why is that Bumgarner lost the perfect game early, giving up a walk to Drew Stubbs in the top of the first. (Stubbs would get another walk in the fourth.) Nevertheless, Bumgarner would record five innings of no-hit baseball against a formidable Cincinnati Reds lineup—the very same lineup that would nearly eliminate the Giants in the playoffs…

…hey, how’d that get in here?

Unfortunately, Ryan Hanigan would lead off the sixth with a single, and that was that.

August 26, 2014: 9 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 0 BB, 13 K

Now, the part of no-hit bid I didn’t mention before are the last three innings. That’s when the stakes really ramp up, and each out starting in the seventh only adds to the pressure and the level of disappointment. After all, I’m still recovering from Yusmeiro Petit’s missed shot at a perfect game.

Including the playoff run, 2014 was arguably Bumgarner’s best season, and it would have been fitting for him to record a no-hitter—or in this case, a perfect game—that year.

Alas, it was not meant to be. His game against the Colorado Rockies was his best shot. He took a perfect game into the top of eighth, when the dreaded Giant killer Justin Morneau laced a double to right field, ending the dream. Of course, Bumgarner would turn that disappointment into pure Country Boy rage, striking out the next four hitters on his way to a shutout.

September 12, 2015: 9 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 0 BB, 9 K

Obviously fueled by Lincecum’s work against the San Diego Padres, Bumgarner thought, “I can do this, too!”

And you know, he was doing just that, carrying a perfect game into the eighth. I can’t imagine how snake-bit the Padres, a franchise that has never no-hit another team, must have felt watching themselves get no-hit by the Giants for the third season in a row.

It was simply too much to bear for the ballplayer formerly known as B.J., AKA Melvin Upton Jr. With two outs in the top of the eighth, he pinch hit for the pitcher and proceeded to ground a single up the middle.

It would not be the last time disappointment would strike in the eighth.

July 10, 2016: 9 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 1 BB, 14 K

Ah, 2016. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. This game had the special significance of coming right before the All-Star break, when it seemed like the Giants simply could not lose. Bumgarner had gotten an All-Star nod, though he was replaced as a result of starting this game.

But boy, as this game proceeded, it showed promises of being the peakiest of peaks for a first half that was full of peaks.

By rWAR, this season was the second-best of Bumgarner’s career. And his start against the Arizona Diamondbacks showed why.

Bumgarner was absolutely dealing, striking out 14 in less than eight innings. But more than that, nobody was making any kind of hard contact against him.

Most no-hitters typically feature a defensive gem or two, because of course they do. It’s hard to get 27 outs in a row without some help. There’s no perfect game without a diving Gregor Blanco, no Tim Lincecum no-hitter without a sliding Hunter Pence.

But watch the highlights here. Besides a hard ground ball to third that was juggled briefly, Bumgarner needed no help. The only other solid contact was the single hit by Jake Lamb in the eighth—yet another case of coming oh-so-close—but even that wasn’t hit that hard.

Bumgarner may not show up on the list of no-hitters, and it’s possible he never will. But that shouldn’t take away from his many incredible performances. When Bumgarner’s on, few pitchers are more dominant.

So, while we face an uncertain future, let’s remember the good times, when Bumgarner showed us what truly spectacular pitching looked like.