NEW YORK – I can see it now: Madison Bumgarner coming out of the bullpen at Wrigley Field in Game 5, stomping and snorting and staring the Cubs down.
Bumgarner pitched five scoreless innings of relief in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, didn’t he? The Giants’ rotation actually is better now than it was then, so maybe this time he will be needed for, oh, only a three-inning save.
Yes, I’m getting ahead of myself, way ahead of myself. But the Giants are back, back after prevailing over the Mets Wednesday night in an electrifying National League Wild Card Game, 3-0. And it’s safe to assume that with their history (World Series titles in 2010, ’12 and ’14) and their rotation (Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Matt Moore in addition to Bumgarner), San Francisco is the team that the Cubs least wanted to play in a best-of-five.
The pressure won’t get to the Cubs – manager Joe Maddon is too good at diffusing the talk of 1908, the players are too confident to succumb to such nonsense. But with about a week left in the regular season, Cubs officials surveyed their potential Division Series opponents, one seemingly more vulnerable than the other, and decided, “Well, whatever happens, one of those clubs is going to get on a plane Wednesday night, celebrating their victory, forgetting all of their troubles along the way.”
The Giants won five of their final six games to secure the second NL wild card, including the final three against a Dodgers club that already was pointing toward the postseason. But they had Bumgarner ready for the Mets, and Bumgarner in the postseason … well, you’ve seen this act before.
Bumgarner’s complete-game shutout, his second in a wild-card game, lowered his road ERA in the postseason to an absurd 0.50. He has now gone 23 postseason innings without allowing a run, improving his career ERA in October to 1.94 – the third-lowest in history for a pitcher who has made at least 10 playoff starts.
Of course, Bumgarner got help in this game, help from a familiar Giants staple in October — the unlikely hero. Say hello to Conor Gillaspie, a 2008 Giants draft pick whom the team traded in ‘13, then re-signed as a minor-league free agent in February — and started at third base in the wild-card game only because of an injury to Eduardo Nunez.
Marco Scutaro, Cody Ross, Travis Ishikawa, Mike Morse … oh, you’ve seen this act before, too. Gillaspie hit a three-run homer off Mets closer Jeurys Familia with one out in the ninth inning, just in time — naturally — for Giants manager Bruce Bochy to avoid pinch-hitting for Bumgarner.
So, can the Giants upset the Cubs? The odds are against Bochy, Bum and Co., considering that they won 87 games during the regular season to the Cubs’ 103 — and that Bumgarner will not be available until Game 3 at AT&T Park, with Cueto and Samardzija likely to start the first two games at Wrigley against Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks, respectively.
“It’s going to be tough,” said right fielder Jay Bruce, who played frequently against the Cubs in the NL Central until the Mets acquired him from the Reds on Aug. 1. “They’re a good team. The Cubs are a great team.”
Bruce explained: “Anybody in the playoffs is a good team. The thing that sets the Cubs apart is that they have sluggers, but those sluggers also get on base a lot. If you catch a slugging team in the playoffs that doesn’t get on base and they go cold, then it’s like, ‘Uh-oh.’ The Cubs get on base and they slug. And their pitching is very good. They’re obviously the team to beat.”
The Giants know it, and rest assured, the Giants don’t care. Giants things, even-year things, are happening again. If you don’t believe me, just replay Wednesday night’s ninth inning, which began with the score still 0-0. And remember that Mets righty Noah Syndergaard was jaw-dropping in his dominance of the Giants in the first seven innings, striking out 10 while allowing just five baserunners.
The Giants celebrated Syndergaard’s removal by loading the bases against Mets setup man Addison Reed in the eighth, only to see Hunter Pence strike out. They began the ninth with another threat, a leadoff double by Brandon Crawford, prompting an immediate moment of truth. Bochy ordered his No. 6 hitter, Angel Pagan, to bunt, wanting to grab the lead before he would need to pinch-hit for Bumgarner.
Pagan, who had executed only one sacrifice since 2012, failed in his first attempt, failed again on his second and then — after Bochy gave him the option of swinging away — struck out. Joe Panik followed with a walk, bringing up Gillaspie for another moment of truth. Bochy would have had no choice but to hit for Bumgarner if Gillaspie had made the second out.
Not to worry: Gillaspie went deep on a 1-1 count.
“I was pretty excited that Syndergaard wasn’t in there — he has some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen,” Gillaspie said. “As far as the home run, you know what? I’ll be honest with you, I couldn’t tell you where the pitch was at. Right now, I have no idea where it was. I just know it was up enough to swing at.”
Ah, but the story didn’t end there. Jarrett Parker was in the on-deck circle, ready to hit for Bumgarner. Bochy said he watched Parker high-five Gillaspie, then screamed at him to return to the dugout.
The Giants had the lead. Bumgarner was at 106 pitches. Bochy, after watching his bullpen crumble in the second half, wanted no one else to pitch the ninth.
Afterward, a reporter asked Bumgarner in the interview room why he was so successful in winner-take-all games. Bumgarner started to reply — “I wish I had an answer for you. I don’t.” — when Gillaspie interjected.
“He’s tough, that’s why. He’s a competitive, competitive guy at everything he does, and it shows not in baseball but anything in life. I mean, the guy will have a competition with anybody over anything. And those are the kind of guys you want on your club, there’s no doubt.”
The Giants have a team full of those guys, as we learned in 2010, ’12 and ‘14.
On to Chicago. On to the Cubs.