Sorry, Noah Syndergaard, Madison Bumgarner owns October

ByJayson Stark ESPN logo
Thursday, October 6, 2016

NEW YORK -- So is this what it was like to watch Christy Mathewson work his magic in the chill of October? Or Carl Hubbell? Or Grover Cleveland Alexander?

Is this what it looks like when a man is turning himself into a legend before our eyes, one dominating shutout inning at a time, October after October after October?

All we have is the record books to tell us what the old-time legends looked like. But luckily, we have our very own eyeballs to tell us what Madison Bumgarner looks like when October arrives, and seasons and legacies are on the line. And once again Wednesday night, he headed for the mound in a winner-take-all postseason baseball game -- and rewrote baseball history for about the 17th time.

"I don't think we think about the history of it all," said his shortstop, Brandon Crawford, on another epic MadBum October evening. "We've almost come to expect it."

Hey, at this point, hasn't everyone? The San Francisco Giants are alive and breathing today, heading for Chicago to take on the Cubs, because of course they are -- and because it all looked verrrry familiar.

They live on thanks to another four-hit Madison Bumgarner shutout special, a storybook swing of the bat by an instant folk hero named Conor Gillaspie and a 3-0 win over the New York Mets in a National League wild-card game that won't soon be forgotten.

And neither, obviously, will the winning pitcher. Because he's about as special as it gets.

It's supposed to be harder to impose your will on these October baseball games than Madison Bumgarner makes it look. But when the champagne bottles had all been emptied late Wednesday evening, here was just the latest compendium of what this man has been able to accomplish when the only thing riding on these games is pretty much everything:

He has now spent 23 innings on the mound in winner-take-all baseball games. And he has hung a zero on the scoreboard in all 23 of them. Yep, that would be a record.

He has thrown complete-game shutouts in two of those games -- the 2014 wild-card game and this one. Ready for the complete list of all pitchers in history who have thrown multiple shutouts in winner-take-all postseason games? Here it comes: There is Madison Bumgarner. ... And, well, that's it.

Bumgarner has now made 13 postseason starts in his career. He forgot to allow a run in six of them. You should know that only one other pitcher in history has made six scoreless postseason starts over the course of his career. And that was Tom Glavine. Who made nearly three times as many starts (35) as Bumgarner has made.

We'll sprinkle in more of these astonishing tidbits as we go along. But first, take a moment to let all that sink in, because nobody should take any of this for granted -- even though his teammates, at this point, are working hard to make him think they are.

"He just went out there and did what everybody expected," his first baseman, Brandon Belt, deadpanned afterward. "It's almost boring. He really needs to do something a little different next time. I'd like to see him hit a home run or something. How about hitting a home run in a playoff game. Heck, anybody can do it in a regular-season game."

Well, as a matter of fact, Bumgarner almost did that Wednesday, too. In the third inning of this game, he stepped in there to face fire-spitting Mets ace Noah Syndergaard -- a man who had just finished striking out the previous four hitters he'd faced -- and crushed the second-hardest-hit ball Syndergaard allowed all night. He just made the mistake of hitting it to deep left-center field, where home runs at Citi Field go to die.

"He got back to the dugout after that one, and he was mad," said his buddy, Jake Peavy. "He said, 'Man, I hit that good.'"

But when we think back on MadBum's mano a mano with Syndergaard, it won't be either one's hitting that we remember. It will be their monumental reenactment of the last postseason elimination game in which both starting pitchers spun at least seven shutout innings: Jack Morris versus John Smoltz, in the iconic seventh game of the 1991 World Series.

Not that either Bumgarner or Syndergaard has any recollection of that game -- since Bumgarner was 2 years old at the time and Syndergaard had yet to experience his rookie year on Planet Earth. But that's what this game had the feel of for those of us who did remember it, as the donuts kept mounting on the board, one after another.

"You know, we talk a lot in [Giants] history about the famous game with Juan Marichal and Warren Spahn," said Giants general manager Bobby Evans, conjuring up the memory of a fabled 16-inning 1-0 game between those two Hall of Famers in 1963. It ended on a Willie Mays walk-off home run in the bottom of the 16th -- off Spahn, of course.

"I used to sit in the room when I first got here and hear the stories of that game," Evans went on. "And that's what this one felt like to me -- what [longtime Giants executives] Dick Tidrow and Jack Hiatt used to describe about that Juan Marichal and Warren Spahn game."

Sure, that works, too. Except for the fact that there was no chance of these two starters going 16, obviously. Unless, that is, that Bumgarner planned on doing that. And you couldn't put it past him at this point. But regardless, his team needed every ounce of brilliance he had in him on this night -- because Syndergaard was his usual electric self, firing seven overpowering innings of two-hit, 10-strikeout baseball.

"Syndergaard was unbelievable," said Buster Posey. "But there was such a calmness in our dugout. And I think it's safe to say Bum deserves a lot of credit for that."

Yeah, that seems safe, all right. Imagine what it's like for these men to play behind this guy after all the miracles they've seen him perform, after all the history they've seen him make, after all the rings he has put on their fingers. To take the field on a game of this magnitude, knowing Bumgarner is on the mound, "is just a feeling of total confidence," Belt said. "It doesn't get any better than that. It's just fun."

But for these even-year Giants, the best part of that fun is in complementing the brilliance of their ace with an almost undefinable knack for finding ways to win October classics like this one. So say hello to Conor Gillaspie, a man who was playing in this game only because (A) the Giants dealt away their third baseman, Matt Duffy, at the trading deadline, (B) the guy who replaced him, Eduardo Nunez, wasn't healthy enough to make the postseason roster and (C) Travis Ishikawa and Willie Mays weren't in uniform anymore.

So of course Gillaspie hammered a three-run, ninth-inning home run off a man who had allowed exactly one home run all year (Mets closer Jeurys Familia). And of course, he roared around the bases, pumping both fists, as the oxygen seemed to drain out of Citi Field. And of course, when that joyous trot was over, Madison Bumgarner looked at him and said: "Conor, I appreciate the hell out of that."

Asked afterward about that classically polite MadBum greeting, and if it was true he'd really told the hero du jour he "appreciated" that mighty blast, Bumgarner said, in that low-key way of his: "I'm sure everybody does."

OK, try to argue with that, huh? But it's also true that when the starting pitcher never gives up a run, he makes all those unlikely heroes possible. And that's the specialty of Madison Bumgarner's house.

He has now pitched in eight postseason road games. The Giants have won all eight of them. He has worked 53 innings in those eight games. The opposition has scored a total of three earned runs. And he has faced 24 hitters with runners in scoring position in those postseason road games. The next hit he allows will be his first. Yeah, really.

But don't ask him to reveal the secrets of how he does these impossible things he does. When he sat on the podium Wednesday night, next to his new best friend, Gillaspie, and was asked if he could explain his ability to conquer October, Madison Bumgarner just shrugged and said: "I wish I had an answer for you. I don't."

Fortunately, though, Conor Gillaspie had one.

"He's tough," Gillaspie said. "That's why. He's a competitive, competitive guy at everything he does. And it shows -- not just in baseball but anything in life."

Well, we'll probably never know what it's like to face Madison Bumgarner on a golf course, or in fantasy football, or even in a fishing tournament. So we'll just have to base our conclusions on that ongoing mini-series, MadBum Versus October. But the one thing we've noticed about that series is that every episode seems to turn out the same as the one before, and the one before that.

"It's the same old postseason Bum," said Belt. "In the postseason, there's just nobody better."

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