It had to happen like that.
By the time the Major League Baseball season had eliminated all but two teams, each one carried its own distinct storyline into late October. The Giants would be attempting to solidify a dynasty on the left arm of pitcher Madison Bumgarner. The Royals would be riding the wave of destiny that carried them back from the depths of the ocean after almost drowning in the American League Wild Card game.
The World Series could have only ended in seven games. And it could have only ended with Bumgarner on the mound protecting a one-run lead.
To think, it almost didn’t happen for a number of reasons.
When Bumgarner gave the Giants a crucial Game 5 victory in San Francisco, it was to the tune of a complete game shutout on 117 pitches. Manager Bruce Bochy knew he had one of the league’s best bullpens at his disposal, yet when the Giants scored three runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to extend their lead to 5-0, Bochy decided to stick with Bumgarner for the ninth inning.
This move should have sent a clear message: we are winning this game, at all costs, but we are closing the book on Bumgarner for the series.
The extra inning of pitches made Bumgarner a question mark for game seven, if one was eventually needed. Sure enough, when the Royals blew out the Giants in Game 6 to force a final game, the question was asked even though the answer was apparent. “Will Bumgarner start Game 7?” “No.”
He couldn’t. Not because of the physical toll the start would have done to his arm — probably no more so than the five innings he pitched in relief — but because of the way the game would have had to be managed. By using Bumgarner in the ninth inning of Game 5, Bochy ultimately burned up a potential start in Game 7, but guaranteed his use in some capacity in relief. This flexibility was critical for the Giants’ success, and it was the single biggest factor in deciding the Series winner.
Had Bumgarner started the game, no matter how effective he would have been, the Giants could not have let him get past the fifth inning. In all likelihood, he would have been capped at four, knowing that San Francisco boasts a stellar bullpen. The Royals could have stayed afloat against the ace and taken their shots when he exited. But when would he have been pulled? And for whom?
The Giants, as a pitching staff, were tasked with recording 27 outs. It did not matter who earned the outs and in what order, but the team needed to burn at-bats without allowing runs. Starting Bumgarner would have used up outs that other pitchers — namely, Tim Hudson — could have also recorded.
Evidence of this eventual scenario would come to fruition when Bochy would remove Hudson from the game after recording only five outs. Indeed, the Giants pitcher had allowed two runs, but it was not because of ineffectiveness that Hudson left the game. It was to maximize the potential of getting outs over the next seven innings.
Bumgarner was the bullet saved for the right time. Bochy did not enter the saloon and fire upon his enemy. Instead, he knew that his opponent eventually had to leave the safety of his confines and enter the duel. When he needed to, he would unleash his weapon. On his terms.
By the fourth of his five innings of work, Madison Bumgarner had locked up the World Series MVP award, regardless of how the game would end. He had been not only the ‘most valuable’ player for his team, but easily the most dominant presence in the series. When he finished the eighth inning, there was absolutely no doubt that he would pitch the ninth.
The areas surrounding Kansas City and San Francisco were obviously living and dying with every single pitch of the past few weeks. This was their moment, and only one would prevail. For the rest of the baseball-watching nation, we had been given the gift of a Game 7, but selfishly asked for more. We wanted drama. And we got it.
The Royals were the obvious ‘Cinderella Team’ the minute they completed their improbable comeback over the A’s in the American League Wild Card Game. The Giants were the obvious ‘Experienced Winners’ that featured superstars everywhere with a championship pedigree. But as perfect as the culmination of the World Series being played in one final game, it was an even more storybook ending that it came down to the final out.
The Royals trailed by one run with two outs against what was currently the most dominant pitcher in baseball. The hitter, Alex Gordon, was the embodiment of what the Royals had been building for years. The two-time All Star was a lifetime Royal, now eight seasons into his career and one of many players who helped piece together the magic ride we were all witnessing. He would have a chance to extend his team’s life.
The ball lifted off Gordon’s bat and drifted towards center field, tailing as Giants outfielder Gregor Blanco hustled to snare it from the sky.
Is this it? Is this how it ends?
Of course not. An anticlimactic fly ball to center field could not possibly capture the incredible baseball we have witnessed this October. The ball had to drop. And of course, because the Royals have made this postseason interesting since game one the ball had to skip past Blanco and to the wall. Alex Gordon not only singled, but made it to third on the error.
As Salvador Perez stepped up to the plate, the baseball season was officially about to draw to a close.
For one final time, every pair of eyeballs on the game was peeled wide. Hearts that had previously not cared about the outcome began to race. Goosebumps formed and the thought was unified from one home to the next.
Maybe a team no one expected to compete for years could pull off yet another incredible win and capture their first World Series title in 29 years. Maybe we were about to watch something magical.
Maybe we didn’t realize that we already were.
There would be a winner and a loser. Madison Bumgarner – completing what is arguably the greatest pitching performance in a World Series – would force Perez to pop out to Pablo Sandoval – a fitting finish that another one of the Giants’ most valuable players caught the final out. The Giants would clinch their third World Series title in five years and become a legitimate baseball dynasty.
Madison Bumgarner would become a legend in San Francisco.
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