Madison Bumgarner did it again Wednesday night, pitching all nine innings as his San Francisco Giants beat the New York Mets 3-0 in the National League Wild Card game. It was a performance equal parts incredible, expected, and cliché. No other active player is so synonymous with postseason success, and no other player (or team) achieves it on so precise a schedule. In Bumgarner's last October outing, he emerged from the bullpen on short rest to pitch the final five frames, all scoreless, of a 3-2 win in the seventh game of the 2014 World Series (his postseason ERA dropped to 2.14 that night, and his lifetime ERA in the Series to 0.25). After the now expected autumn off in 2015, he showed with his first start of the 2016 postseason that nothing much has changed.
Part of the appeal of watching Bumgarner on nights like these—or the frustration of it, if you're rooting for the team he's euthanizing—is how obvious it all looks. Noah Syndergaard, the Mets' starter on Wednesday, pitched a fine game by any measure: seven no-run innings with ten strikeouts. Even when he was striking out sides, though, he looked like someone who might conceivably fail, might tire or miss his mark and run into trouble. In other words, he looked like a human, albeit a very large and hard-throwing one.
Bumgarner, on the other hand, works with all the fallibility of an oil well. He takes the same amount of time between pitches in the eighth inning as he does in the first. He brings his knee to the same height and throws from the same angle. His fastball stays high when he wants it high and low when he wants it low; it cuts wide past the ends of bats or burns in on hands. His curve is a ball when hitters swing and a strike when they don't.
So that's the reasonable part of all this; anyone can understand, watching Bumgarner face one batter, how he might dominate a game. Less understandable is how often postseason games seem to bend themselves backward to add to his legend. The Giants' only runs on Wednesday came from a ninth-inning Conor Gillaspie homer that couldn't have been timed better for the sake of the tall tale. Bumgarner got to spend almost his whole night in a no-score pressure cooker, swapping zeroes with Syndergaard and then staying on when the Mets resorted to their bullpen, and what's more, he was due up next when Gillaspie finally broke through. If Gillaspie had failed to plate a run, the Giants would have pinch-hit for their pitcher. As it happened, he got to come back out for the ninth and, in the preferred rhetoric of the truest MadBum disciples, finish the job.
Asked after the game if he expected a low-scoring affair given the matchup between himself and Syndergaard, Bumgarner responded, "I've played this game long enough to know that anything can happen. It might have been 21 to 19, you never know." At which point everyone listening thought, "Nah, sometimes you do."