One of the most promising signs of the evening was one swing off the bat of the Giants’ – lets say it together – 23 year old rookie, cleanup-hitting catcher. When he stepped up to the plate in the eighth against Darren O’Day for yet another battle, I texted to a friend: “I wish Posey would wake up. His at bats have been dreadful. He’s trying to pull everything and it doesn’t make any sense. His strength is opposite field and yet he’s trying to yank everything.” Moments later, Buster displayed the brilliance of his developing talents and of glorious backspin in one swing. O’Day left a changeup in the top quarter of the strike zone – in case you didn’t know, terrible place for a changeup – and Buster belted it to center for a solo shot. It sure would have been nice to hear a real homerun call, you know, one by Kuiper. Oh well. It reminded me a great deal of a homerun Buster hit off of Andrew Cashner in the eighth inning of a critical game at Wrigley in September. That night hard luck Matt Cain had battled a resurgent Carlos Zambrano to a stalemate through six and was removed because the Giants were desperate for runs. The solo shot by Posey in the eighth would be the only run of the game as the Giants won 1-0. His homerun that night traveled 418 feet to center field, and his blast traveled 419 feet to center on this Halloween night. When Posey’s going good that’s exactly what he does, and I’m hoping that’s a sign for tomorrow’s 2010 version of November baseball. The graph below illustrates Posey's ability to hit for power to all fields, where 10 of his 18 homeruns were to center or right field.
|Compliments of Hit Tracker|
But the real story tonight was Madison “Young Hickory” Bumgarner* of Hickory, North Carolina. A reader recently informed me that was the nickname of James K. Polk – I hadn’t realized it –who was given the nickname for being a particular protégé to Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson. This tenacious 21 year old Bumgarner, who by my novice observation is about as fearless as the original Hickory, started the evening having already thrown 216 total innings in 2010 (including at AAA Fresno) and hadn’t pitched more than 151 innings in a season ever; he did that in 2009.
*The Giants used to punt 1st round draft picks for aging hitters like Michael Tucker. That trend is no more. Their four postseason starters are homegrown, drafted and developed by San Francisco. Their second baseman, who flashed the leather brilliantly on this night, was acquired by trading Tim Alderson, another 1st round pick. Posey was of course the fifth overall selection in 2008. Their bearded closer they got in the 24th round of the 2003 draft out of LSU because he had a big arm but needed Tommy John and would require a hefty bonus. That one worked out, too.
At the end of 2009, he came up to make an emergency start when Tim Lincecum had a stiff back and couldn’t make it. It was cause for four-alarm panic in San Francisco, but at least we’d get a chance to see this kid we’d heard so much about already pitch live. Bumgarner pitched fine, he gave up two runs (on two solo shots) in 5.1 innings and got the no decision. But, Madison topped out at about 88-90 MPH and confirmed what many (obsessed) Giants fans had been reading. The reports from the minor leagues were not good. Bumgarner was still getting outs and competing, he was still not walking many batters which is one of his greatest strengths, but he was also not popping the catchers mitt with a mid-90’s heater and he was not striking out many batters. That’s what he was throwing in Spring Training in 2009 what he garnered compliments from Manny Ramirez. But over the course of his second professional season, his fastball disappeared. He was still pretty successful, but the way he was doing it wasn’t exactly overwhelming.
In 2008, Bumgarner made his professional debut in the Class A Sally League and threw 141.2 innings. He struck out 164 batters (10.42/9) and walked just 21 (1.33), while giving up just 3 homeruns (.19). That left him with a 15-3 record, a 1.46 ERA and the honor of Minor League Pitcher of the Year. He was instantly an untouchable prospect and being groomed for the Big Club’s rotation by the Giants. He was overmatching the Class A hitters like a man among boys, and his 6’4”, 220 lb frame doesn’t make it difficult to imagine.
Many Giants fans hoped that Bumgarner’s arm simply tired throughout 2009 and that he’d show up in the spring in 2010, flash his plus fastball and control and skate his way into the rotation. Instead, his velocity hadn’t returned and he was blasted in Spring Training. Suddenly onlookers began to worry he was injured. It’s happened countless times before. A phenomenal pitching prospect rockets through the minors, gets hurt along the way and is never heard from again.
Bumgarner was sent to AAA Fresno and continued to get rocked through three starts. His replacement in the Major Leagues was Todd Wellemeyer, and he would need replacing of his own soon enough, that is once the Giants came to the realization that any success he was having was as hollow as a termite infested tree. And then, Giants instructor and pitching guru Dick Tidrow had a bullpen session with Madison and he was back on track. His mechanics had been muddied somehow along the way and he needed a tweak to get him back where he was. Over the next couple months, Madison regained his control and started dispatching minor league hitters again.
Fast-forward to Halloween 2010. Sometime in August or September, Bumgarner started to get his fastball back. What’s more, he’d gotten a better idea of how to pitch through his struggles – does this remind anyone of Tim Lincecum’s struggles this season? On Halloween night with (much) of the country watching, in a pivetol game 4 of the World Series, Bumgarner once again flashed his talent and everything he learned when his fastball abandoned him, and he showed that he was a better pitcher because of it. It’s a beautiful thing when a plan comes together.
Madison threw 106 pitches on the night and 69 strikes (65%). The big key for him was changeup and slider command. He was able to five total swing and miss strikes with those offerings. He threw 16 of 21 changes for strikes (76%) and 18 of 25 sliders (72%). He averaged 91 mph with his four seam fastball (topping at over 94 mph) and located it on both sides of the plate. I recall specifically, when McCarver mentioned that Kinsler was an inner half feasting type hitter. No sooner did those words fly out of his mouth was Bumgarner pounding him on the insider corner with a fastball for a strike. Bumgarner pitched fearlessly and was rewarded for it.
His best work came against Vladimir Guerrero. In the second, he struck him out with a 92.5 mph fastball perfectly placed on the insider corner, up at the hands. In the fourth with a runner on, he struck him out with an 82 mph changeup off the plate. Guerrero’s swing was extremely awkward. And in the seventh after a baffling error by Juan Uribe, he struck him out with an 82 mph slider that he, again, looked far from comfortable swinging at. It was almost as if after the first strikeout he kept waiting for that inside fastball again, and it just never came. His final line was impressive: 8 IP, 3 hits (all singles), 2 BB and 6 K’s.
In the ninth, closer Brian Wilson needed just 11 pitches while throwing 8 strikes to finish Texas off. He decisively handled the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton which was particularly impressive. He threw a 93 mph fastball for a called strike. Then he threw a devilish, biting slide piece at 84 mph that many believe must be some type of hellish curveball. Hamilton miraculously tipped it for a foul strike two. Finally, he threw a 96 mph fastball way up and out of the zone but Hamilton just couldn’t resist, swinging and missing and giving the Giants the 3-1 lead in the series. The Rangers got the chance to flash their shiny closer in game 3, and the Giants did in game 4. It had this Giants fan smiling and the Rangers hitters (and fans) fearing the beard.
Also of note, the Giants averaged 4.6 pitches per plate appearance. They averaged just 3.74 during the regular season, and no, that’s not good. Andres Torres went 3 of 5 with two doubles, including a huge one while batting right handed. This is a good sign because he’s been swinging a hot bat lately from both sides of the plate lately, and he’ll be facing left handed Cliff Lee tomorrow as the Giants attempt to clinch, and Torres gave him trouble last go ‘round in game 1. And their creaky shortstop, Edgar Renteria, had three hits too. This may well be his farewell performance and I can't think of a better way for a gem of a ballplayer to head out as the curtians close.
The Giants are up 3-1 going into a Game 5 in Texas with their ace on the hill and their adoring fans at their backs. They have 3 games, 1 in Texas and 2 in San Francisco if necessary, to make history and give Giants fans a long awaited parade down Market Street. I may only be 25, but I was around in 2002 and I’ve been around long enough to know these opportunities don’t arise very often – someone can try telling that to rookies Bumgarner and Posey when this is all over. The Giants are making just their fourth trip to the Fall Classic since coming west, and the thought that their on the doorstep of ending the heartbreak after all the torture this season is giving me the chills.
Pitch data from Brooks Baseball PitchFX.