The suddenly red-hot San Francisco Giants couldn’t have scripted a better start to their 2014 postseason run. The orange and black have reeled off three straight wins to increase their National League record to an astounding 10 consecutive playoff victories. They’ve demonstrated the same type of grit and determination that previously resulted in two World Series titles and are now on the verge of sweeping the Washington Nationals, who entered October widely considered the best all-around team in baseball.
The stage is set for ace Madison Bumgarner. The hard-throwing southpaw is steadfastly developing a reputation for being the best big game pitcher in MLB. He’ll aim to duplicate the kind of success he was able to sustain in an unfair pounding of the darling-Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL wild-card game, and propel his squad to within four wins of yet another pennant triumph.
It won’t be easy for the Giants, though, despite having their 25-year-old ace on the mound in San Francisco’s first home game this October. The Giants have been on the flip side of this exact same scenario before. It happened just two years ago in opposition of the Cincinnati Reds. The Giants had been written-off after losing back-to-back games at home before flying to Ohio for what seemed like their final resting place.
The rest is history. The Giants know they must take of business today to avoid giving the Nationals a legitimate sense of belief. Things can change in a hurry in a best-of-five series, which is why today’s start for Bumgarner is exponentially more crucial than his shutdown effort in a do-or-die situation against the Pirates last Wednesday.
Oct 1, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner (40) throws a pitch against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the ninth inning of the 2014 National League Wild Card playoff baseball game at PNC Park. The Giants won 8-0. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
The first inning often dictates the story for Bumgarner, who has been vulnerable to allowing early runs all season, especially at home. The version of “MadBum” that takes the bump in the playoffs is an animal nobody wants to deal with, though. Bumgarner has pitched 16 consecutive shutout innings over two starts dating back to the 2012 World Series. He’s now 19-1 on the season (including the wild-card game) when getting at least three runs of support or more, making it vital for him to pitch well in top half of the first.
Bumgarner’s potential success both figuratively and legitimately starts with Nationals lead-off hitter Denard Span, who is just one-for-eight with two strikeouts in nine career plate appearances against the Giants lefty. Lead-off hitters have given Bumgarner fits for most of the season. Opposing lead-off batters are hitting .314 against “MadBum” on the season. First batters to start any inning have collectively registered a whopping .414 batting average against the Giants ace.
For Bumgarner to be successful, he needs to consistently get strike one. He was able to do that all night against the Pirates, throwing 24 first-pitch strikes to 33 batters. The Giants will be tested against Nationals right-hander Doug Fister, who got rocked in Game 2 of the ’12 fall classic at AT&T Park, but Bumgarner’s ability to throw first-pitch strikes will ultimately go a long way toward determining whether the Giants clinch an LCS berth tonight.
As ESPN baseball analyst Doug Glanville brilliantly described last Wednesday:
It’s often pointed out that Bumgarner has struggled in the first inning, posting a dismal 5.73 ERA while recording the first three outs of a given start during the regular season. But it wasn’t an issue against Pittsburgh, which had won 16 of its final 23 games, and likely won’t be a problem against the Nationals on Monday night. Bumgarner has been virtually untouchable over five of his seven career postseason starts. It would be surprising if that trend didn’t continue with another champagne shower looming ahead.