Madison Bumgarner's streak of seven straight "quality starts" goes way beyond the minimalist implications of that phrase: he's been dang good. I mean, real, darn good. Could go so far as to say damn special.
Here are his numbers over his last seven starts, dating back to his last April outing:
He hasn't given up a home run since his second start, on April 17. He's lowered his ERA from 7.79 to 3.66. Those are the numbers of a guy on a serious roll, elite numbers of a dominant pitcher. If he keeps it up, he may have to be included in conversations surrounding who Boss Bochy picks for his All-Star staff.
In fact, I'm going to place his name in the hat right now. He should make it to the All-Star game, especially since his manager can do the picking.
What's special about Bumgarner is that he is so unflappable. He's 21 going on 32. He appears to be gaining better control of his emotions and done a good job of looking past the early blemishes that could have overwhelmed a less steady person: the six-game losing streak, the lack of offensive support, the awful umpiring that he's had to pitch through, the questions looming over his head: is Bumgarner snake bitten? Is his youth catching up to him after experiencing so much early success during the Giants' World Series run?
He did go through patches when he appeared to succumb to the pressures of adversity: he'd allow one rough inning to be his undoing, and couldn't find a way out of the onslaught.
In some of those cases, he was the victim of bleeders and bloopers; in others, he was squeezed by stingy umpires. So, it was a bit unfair to say he was pitching poorly. But now, he appears to have learned how to contain the damage.
Monday, for example, the Cardinals jumped on him for two runs in the third inning -- the door opening after two outs when a line drive foul ball was called fair for an RBI double by Allen Craig, followed by an RBI single for Albert Pujols, who moved up to second when Cody Ross' throw banged off of catcher Eli Whiteside's glove. The wheels could have come off completely with the N.L.s top hitter, the dangerous Matt Holiday, due up. But Bumgarner bore down to keep that go-ahead run on the bases by inducing an inning-ending groundout.
The Giants had erupted for five runs in an inning only once before this year, on April 18, in their 8-1 win over Colorado. Runs have come at such a premium that all expectations for major rallies have been become a luxurious afterthought, like bygone days of expensive dinner outings for families now watching their budgets.
A successful rally for the Giants has been more along the lines of their one-run third inning. They got a booming leadoff double from Bumgarner, the pitcher, but with so much history of failed situational hitting, Bochy ordered a bunt from leadoff man, Andres Torres, moving Bumgarner to third. But, as the No. 2 hitter, Miguel Tejada fell behind in the count, 0-and-2, it was easy to second guess a) the Torres bunt and b) why the heck, of all days, Bochy decided to put Tejada in the two-hole.
But, lo, Tejada bounced one up the middle through a pulled-in defense for the rare RBI hit, and a great sigh of relief (or was it just the exhalation of pent-up exasperation?) went up through the Giants Universe.
Still, it was just a single run, and they'd have to settle for that when the middle of the order -- No. 3 hitter Freddie Sanchez and cleanup man Aubrey Huff (who went 0-for-9 together Monday) went down without a peep.
So, when they put together a five-run third, it was like an early 4th of July celebration.
They cobbled together all the elements of a nice rally: a leadoff walk from Cody Ross (who should be credited with loosening the spirits of the Giants when he launched his second-inning home run; remember, they came into St. Louis after two straight dispiriting losses to Milwaukee, which seemed to show they hadn't yet gotten over the shock of losing Buster Posey); an unexpected double down the line from Aaron Rowand (who continues to contribute with timely hits, though he has yet to earn the full faith of fans that he can actually be counted on); a tie-breaking RBI single from the kid, Brandon Crawford, a stolen base, and then a walk to Bumgarner, who's reputation as a masher is getting into his counterparts' heads now.
Could they really cash in? Could the Giants be expected to open this game up with a big hit? Could they just please stay away from the double play; maybe catch a break with Torres' speed? As I say, expectations have been low for the Giants, and when you've been disappointed so often, you can only ask for the pain to be minimized.
When Torres' fly ball arched its way through the sunny skies of St. Louis, even he didn't seem to expect it to go out. A sacrifice fly ball would be nice, as good as it usually gets for the 2011 Giants.
So, when that thing actually soared into the stands, it might have taken a moment to understand the moment. And then you saw Torres almost passing Bumgarner on the basepaths, he'd been so out of practice (well, he'd never done this sort of thing in the major leagues, so Andres could be excused). But, wouldn't that have been the apt blunder: a grand slam-turned out.
But, Bumgarner slowed him down, Torres waited his turn on the basepaths, and the Giants had the satisfaction of a real rally -- and a nice, important victory.