For all but the briefest, highest-leverage slivers of its season, baseball is the sport in which it’s most difficult for a team to lean on its stars. The batting order is always implacable: Time after time, teams painstakingly construct rallies, only to bring up the bottom of the order with the bases loaded. Starting rotations, at least in latter days, harden as soon as they’re set, and ace starters unfailingly disappear for four days between outings, less likely to make an unscheduled trip to the mound than a hard-throwing position player is. Teams can pinch hit, but they can’t run plays that put the crucial batted ball in the path of the best fielder, the bat in the hands of the best hitter, or the game ball in the glove of the most effective thrower.
In Game 7s, though, some of those restrictions are miraculously removed as pitchers’ regular roles loosen. And in last night’s decisive game, those special conditions favored San Francisco more than Kansas City, helping the Giants seal a 3-2 victory that solidified their dynastic status and burnished the October credentials of World Series stud Madison Bumgarner.
Both managers made it clear before Wednesday’s game got under way that they didn’t expect to get many innings out of their starters. With only a few arms unavailable, the bullpens were packed from the national anthem on, but they figured to start emptying early. “This is totally different than anything I’ve ever done,” Royals manager Ned Yost said before first pitch.
Under those circumstances, the first inning felt like foreplay. The starters, as everyone watching knew, were the weakest links: The goal was to extend them just far enough that the superior pitchers waiting beyond the outfield walls could close out the game without getting gassed. Every out that Tim Hudson and Jeremy Guthrie recorded brought their opponent inexorably closer to the buzz saws at the back of the bullpen, but every delivery also risked a deficit from which the trailing team wouldn’t recover.
Every run the Giants scored in the first six games of the series came after their leadoff guy got on, and the pattern held true in the second inning of Game 7. Pablo Sandoval reached after being hit in the elbow by a pitch he hardly tried to avoid, and Hunter Pence and Brandon Belt followed with singles. Guthrie, who isn’t good at generating grounders or missing bats, got out of the inning as cleanly as could have been expected, coaxing two sac flies1 and whiffing Juan Perez, the defensive specialist, who was starting for the first time on the road in the series. Nonetheless, the Royals were down two in a matchup that figured to favor the early leader more than the typical contest.
Bringing the Giants’ postseason total of runs scored without a hit to 20.
Sooner than someone could say “momentum,” Kansas City responded in the bottom of the second. Although the Royals had stolen only one base in the series, they briefly brought back the basepath aggression that helped put them on the postseason map with a seven-steal wild-card game win. After leading off with a single, Billy Butler scored from first on an Alex Gordon double (and a risky, no-out send), and Gordon tagged and advanced to third on a fly to left field. That put him in position to score on an Omar Infante fly ball to center, aided by a weak throw from Gregor Blanco that Brandon Belt bobbled.
Hudson, who earlier in the inning had hit Salvador Perez in the leg with a pitch that threatened to take the catcher out of the game,2 got the hook after allowing a two-out Alcides Escobar single. With a hobbled Perez technically (if not realistically) in scoring position and Nori Aoki due up, Bruce Bochy signaled for southpaw Jeremy Affeldt, who got a groundout. The bullpen parade had begun. In his 22nd straight scoreless postseason appearance, Affeldt would go 2.1 innings, his longest outing since July 2012, though he might not have made it that far had Joe Panik not started a stellar double play in the third that cut the Royals’ win expectancy by close to 8 percentage points.3
Perez would stay in and, with the last out of the fourth, top Darren Daulton for the most innings caught in a single season.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Panik converted 48 of 61 (78.7 percent) double-play opportunities as either the fielder or pivot man this season, the highest rate of any second baseman.
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Guthrie got through a routine third, which may have moved Yost’s finger slightly too far from the trigger in the fourth. Before the game, my unsolicited advice to both skippers was “Always Be Warming.” With both bullpens fully stocked and the Royals’ worst starter pitching to the heart of San Francisco’s order for the second time, there was no reason not to have someone ready to snuff out a rally. But even though Yost had indicated he’d be willing to summon Kelvin Herrera as early as the second — and although he’d said, “If we’ve got to think, ‘Hey, do you think we can push him to another [inning]?’ that won’t happen” — there was no one warming in the top of the fourth when Guthrie returned to the mound.
Sandoval and Pence, who both tormented the Royals all series, started the rally that gave the Giants their third run. One out after Pence’s single, Yost yanked Guthrie’s slightly-too-long leash and brought in Herrera, marking the righty’s earliest entrance since 2012. In a showdown between blistering fastball and power bat, Herrera faced Michael Morse, the prototypical DH whose presence on the roster distinguished the Giants from the typical NL team. On an 0-2 count, Morse fought off an inside four-seamer clocked at 99 mph that broke his bat but couldn’t stop his soft liner from falling in right field. The Giants had the lead, late enough in the game that the Royals would soon have to face their fans’ worst fear.
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As the Giants went down in order in the top of the fifth, all eyes at Kauffman Stadium rotated toward the Giants’ bullpen, where the menacing Bumgarner — the presumptive series MVP in the event of a Giants victory, even before he threw a pitch in Game 7 — had begun to warm. Minutes later, Bumgarner trotted in on two days’ rest, carrying a 0.29 ERA in four career World Series appearances. Either he’d lower that figure or he’d surrender the lead.
On Bumgarner’s third pitch, no. 9 hitter Infante singled to right, and the stadium exploded. Maybe, the home crowd wishcasted, the lefty would be working without his usual stuff. However, helped by an unwise Escobar bunt on a 2-0 count; a catch by Juan Perez on an Aoki liner to left that Travis Ishikawa probably wouldn’t have touched; and a perfect, strikeout-inducing sequence against Lorenzo Cain, who chased exactly where Bumgarner wanted him to, the Giants escaped the inning unscathed.
At that point, the game turned into an exercise in out subtraction. Herrera got the Royals through the sixth, which made Kansas City’s bullpen blueprint clear: Wade Davis for two, and Greg Holland for the ninth. But the offense had to tie or take the lead to make even scoreless innings matter, and the Royals’ outs were slipping away.
Employing the easy, deceptive delivery he’d already ridden to two gems in the series and throwing no harder or softer than normal, Bumgarner mowed down batter after batter. The sixth, the seventh, the eighth: nine up, nine down. The Royals couldn’t make Bumgarner work enough to get him out of the game, because even when he did miss the strike zone, his offerings were too enticing to take. According to ESPN Stats & Info, he threw 54 percent of his pitches in the upper third of the zone or above, his highest rate in any career appearance, and was rewarded in that region with three-quarters of his whiffs. For the first time in any appearance this season, Bumgarner never went to a three-ball count. The lefty looked sharper than anyone on short rest should.
Until the last out, it looked like the Royals would succumb quietly, but a great game, and an adrenaline-charged postseason, had one more moment of incredible drama in store. With two outs, Gordon hit a liner to center for which Blanco, an excellent fielder, wisely decided not to dive. However, Blanco wavered between the rash course and the prudent one just long enough to slip and let the ball get by him. It rolled to the wall, where Juan Perez, another excellent fielder, failed in his first attempt to retrieve it. Gordon rounded second, went to third, and, with most of a stadium willing him to score, obeyed third-base coach Mike Jirschele’s stop sign, one night after multiple Royals runners had ignored the coach’s instructions.
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Could Gordon have scored? According to the calculations of Cubs consultant and The Book coauthor Tom Tango, Gordon would have needed to be safe only about a quarter of the time for an attempt in that situation to make sense. Had he been running at full speed out of the box, he would have had a good shot, assuming the rest of the play had transpired the same way. Instead, Gordon coasted to first as one would on the usual presumptive single — understandable, in that a batted ball of that sort almost never leads to a scoring opportunity, but still frustrating, in that one would have hoped the stakes in that moment would have overridden Gordon’s muscle memory.
As it was, Gordon got to third just as the ball reached relay man Brandon Crawford, who has a strong, accurate arm. Crawford had to pick a short hop and turn, and Gordon wouldn’t have slowed into third had Jirschele waved him on, but Crawford still probably would have thrown out Gordon easily. To determine what sign to show, Jirschele had to weigh the likelihood of an inaccurate relay against the likelihood of a hit by Salvador Perez, the next batter. Perez has historically hit lefties well, but he was diminished by his record workload and perhaps by the damage from the hit-by-pitch in the second. Bumgarner is great, and was dealing, but he had to be tiring, though he’d say after the game that he “still felt relatively the same.” That’s a lot of mental math to expect Jirschele to do as Gordon unexpectedly neared third.
Knowing how the next at-bat ended, non-Giants fans can perhaps be excused for wishing Gordon would have gone, regardless of the outcome: The upside, excitement-wise, would’ve been a game-tying inside-the-park single, and the downside would’ve been a World Series–ending play at the plate — involving Buster Posey, for added intrigue. Either way, it would’ve been one of the most exciting plays imaginable, unlike the Perez popup to Sandoval in foul territory that actually ended the game.
Even that popup, though, was a testament to Bumgarner’s mastery. With Gordon on third, a breaking ball that got by Posey could have tied the game, so instead of running that risk, Bumgarner took the high road. Perez, who had the highest chase rate of any hitter in the second half of the season, didn’t see a pitch in the strike zone; one of Bumgarner’s offerings barely made it onto the standard strike-zone plot.
That far out of the zone, Perez’s ill-advised swings were unlikely to result in anything but a strikeout or a popup. “I knew Perez was going to want to do something big,” Bumgarner said. “We tried to use that aggressiveness and throw our pitches up in the zone.” A previous Perez flail had won the wild-card game, but his wild swing in Game 7 produced a highlight that Royals fans won’t want to rewatch.
Bumgarner’s final tally was 68 pitches (and 50 strikes) in Game 7 — which propelled him past James Shields for the most pitches thrown this season — and 52.2 October innings, the most any pitcher has thrown in a single postseason.4 Bumgarner, Bochy revealed before the game, normally throws 40 to 50 no-pressure pitches on his throw day. On Wednesday, he surpassed that total under the most intense scrutiny imaginable. “Bumgarner’s a great starting pitcher,” Yost said before the game. “We’ll see what kind of reliever he is.” The good kind, clearly.
Obviously, that’s a record that shouldn’t be compared to the performance of pitchers who played in eras with fewer playoff rounds.
Even before his Game 7 outing, Bumgarner’s postseason performance had drawn comparisons to Curt Schilling’s in 2001, and Wednesday’s five innings make things even more interesting.
We could debate which line is better: Bumgarner has the innings and the lower ERA, but Schilling has the strikeouts, and he recorded his stats against tougher competition, in better hitter’s parks, in a far more inflated offensive era. Schilling, though, doesn’t believe any discussion is necessary.
The Giants wouldn’t have won without the offensive heroics of Pence, Sandoval, and others, but Bumgarner, the NLCS and World Series MVP, carried the pitching staff to an extent that’s difficult to do in a team sport, pitching more than a third of San Francisco’s World Series innings and more postseason innings than the rest of the Giants’ starters combined. Giants starters other than Bumgarner collectively recorded only one more out against the Royals than the lefty notched himself, and they produced a collective 9.92 ERA. And in part, Bumgarner’s outsize dominance is because Game 7s turn baseball into a sport in which teams do have the ability to pass the ball to their best shooter right before the buzzer, and in which a reliever can earn a win while a starter records a save.
In the end, the game played out mostly as expected: Every run scored was charged to a starter, and the team that took the early lead made it last. The surprise was that only seven pitchers appeared, which was mostly because of Bumgarner, whom everyone expected to pitch a few innings but almost no one expected to pitch five. Given how easily the outcome could have swung the other way, it seemed almost arbitrary to stop the game after nine innings, or the series after seven games, but if this October has confirmed anything, it’s that the point of the playoffs isn’t to crown the team that would win with a simulator. The World Series we saw was decided by a single margin, with the tying run 90 feet from home plate and a newly minted postseason legend on the mound. What more could we ask for from sports?
The Royals won the most playoff games that a non-champion can, but their story stopped just short of the full feel-good treatment. Perhaps that last loss will spare us from the sentiment that Kansas City cracked the code to team building: There’s a reason why they seemed like such a throwback, and it’s not that the other 29 teams have been constructing their rosters wrong. The Royals made it this far with a model that worked by the slimmest of margins, but they executed a flawed plan to perfection, and few teams have ever made winning as much fun to watch.
We’ve now gone 14 seasons without a repeat World Series winner, tied for the longest streak ever, but the Giants have won three of the last five titles, something only four other franchises have ever achieved. They’ve done it with different aces, center fielders, and closers, but the same manager and several of the same core pieces (some of whom, admittedly, have stuck around in vestigial form). They’ve been criticized both for keeping some players in place and also for the way they’ve imported outsiders: The guy who got last night’s game-winning hit, for instance, was a DH playing in a league that doesn’t have a home for DHes. Even after winning two titles, GM Brian Sabean’s moves meet with quizzical looks as often as wholehearted approval.
The Giants have only the seventh-most wins over that five-season span; the two times they didn’t win the World Series, they didn’t make the playoffs. They’re a dynasty for an era in which championship teams don’t have to be dominant, a product of Bud Selig’s baseball. In some ways, they don’t measure up to certain multi-time champions from prior years whose full-season skill was never in doubt.
On the other hand, they’ve enjoyed astonishing postseason success at a time when October features more teams, and more rounds, than ever before. Under the format in place three years ago, the 2014 Giants wouldn’t have made the playoffs.5 And yet, under the playoff format in place now, they had to complete an incredibly steep uphill climb that started with an elimination game and arguably got more difficult from there. In three of the last five years — only the even ones, of course — these Giants have been good enough to get to October. And once there, they’ve outplayed their playoff opponents at every turn. That’s an enviable legacy in any era.
Technically, the Giants would have played the Pirates in a Game 163 to determine ownership of the one wild-card spot.