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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Old School Bumgarner was masterful

Madison Bumgarner pitches as if he is from another generation, a throwback country hard-baller who hails from a simpler time with few distractions other than a stray thought of roping steer.

He pitches with the wisdom of a veteran and the desire of a lunch-pail blue collar worker scrapping out a living, a guy who relies as much on guile and deception as his strong arm.

The rhythm of his pace, steady, consistent and in concert with the strike zone, has something soulful to it. It's as if he's communing with the game's greats -- like Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Warren Spahn -- when he toys with the unhittable regions of the strike zone.

It is intriguing to watch the big left-hander, who is still a week shy of 22 years old, pour through opposing hitters as if they never seen such a thing as a major league fastball with movement.

Bumgarner, who betrays no emotion on the mound, conceals his face behind his glove as he peers into the plate for a sign. All you can see are his eyes, steely, cold, blue, remorseless, peering over the glove. 

As he winds up, he kicks his right leg almost up to his throat. But it isn't until almost at the point when he brings his foot to the ground that he begins to take the ball out of his glove.

By then, he is almost fully torqued to throw the ball, his arm fully stretched behind him, and then across his body, the ball comes from seemingly nowhere, as his fully stretched out 6-foot-5-inch, 225-pound frame thrusts menacingly toward the plate.

And his offerings come along a wide spectrum. They explode as a 92 MPH fastball riding up and away from a right hander, or dart as an 88 MPH cut fastball that sweeps with such movement in on the hands of right handers or away from left-hander that they seem to disappear under their hands or under the barrel of their bats.

There's also that hard, downward biting slider that dives into the dirt toward a hitters' back foot. And the slow curve that comes from a foot outside and settles, through the back door, on the outside corner.

On Sunday, Bumgarner, who conceals everything to do with his disposition, revealed his full arsenal to stifle a pretty decent hitting Milwaukee Brewers team.

His dominance was marred only by Ryan Braun's first inning home run (off a not-badly located fastball down and away). He scattered eight hits total, including a leadoff double to opposing pitcher Yovani Gallardo in the top of the third inning.

How he responded to that double, already down, 1-0, was a perfect example of just how tough he's become in responding to adversity.

After Corey Hart moved Gallardo up to third on a sacrifice bunt, Bumgarner put away No. 2 hitter Josh Wilson on three pitches, the punchout on a fastball that rode up and away.

That set up a classic confrontation with Braun, only two innings removed from his home run on a  fastball low and outside that he yanked over the center field wall. Bumgarner attacked Braun with a perfectly placed 91 MPH fastball on the inside corner, followed by a good, hard 88 MPH fastball that cut in on his hands, which Braun swung right through.

Braun then worked the count full by taking three close pitches: a 92 MPH fastball in, just off the plate; an 87 MPH backdoor slider that missed the outside corner by maybe "half a ball," as TV color man Mike Krukow put it; and another slider just in. They were all tantalizing and it took a pro like Braun to lay off.

But Braun stood no chance against the next pitch, a slow, arcing curve that came by way of the first base coaches box and settled on the outside corner. Braun swung, but futilely, a strikeout that stranded Gallardo on third. But, more importantly, it sent a message into the Brewer dugout that Bumgarner was not to be trifled with.

Then again, he's been proving that since suffering through one of the worst innings in the history of the game -- eight runs on nine hits in one-third of an inning against the Twins. Since that unforgettable June 21 night, Bumgarner has had a 2.88 ERA in six starts (11 earned runs in 34 1/3 innings), walking a minuscule three while striking out 37 (that's a better than 12-to-1 ratio, folks). He hasn't walked anybody since July 6, a streak that is now 22 2/3 innings.

You want competitive? Or determined? How about Bumgarner responding to Gallardo's double with one of his own in the bottom of the third, a blast over the center fielder's head, two bounces to the wall? And, when Jeff Keppinger came through with a two-out single to left field (on a really tough curve ball away), third base coach Tim Flannery did not hesitate sending Bumgarner around third (providing what KNBR's talk guy Mychael Urban cleverly called a "police escort" all the way home). Bumgarner showed good speed, for a big guy, and a great slide just ahead of a tag, and the score was tied, 1-1.

The game would essentially be settled the next inning when the Giants parlayed a pop up to third lost in the sun, a hit and run single and a sacrifice fly into the decisive run. Bumgarner would need one memorable defensive play --  Keppinger diving to his left on a sharply hit grounder, quickly firing to second to start a dazzling 4-6-3 inning ending double play in the sixth.

He carved up the bottom of the order in the seventh, striking out two and getting a weak grounder back to him. And Bumgarner made it through two outs in the eighth, having yielded a single to Corey Hart before Boss Bochy put a close to his performance with Braun looming.

I would have liked to see one more matchup between the two. But Bochy felt Braun, who added a sharply hit infield single off Bumgarner in the sixth, might have had the advantage at that point.

"The two previous guys hit it pretty good, and Braun had seen him three times already," Bochy said.

So, he brought in Sergio Romo, who amazingly got away with two hanging sliders, the latter inducing a weak ground ball from Braun, who was so far out in front of the pitch, he cued it to the mound.

Another 1-2-3 ninth inning from Brian Wilson (it took him all of 15 pitches, a "disappointment" after the remarkable five-pitch ninth of a day before), and Bumgarner's performance was consecrated with a win, just his sixth this year and 13th in his budding career.

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