Bumgarner’s greatest at bat

No one likes falling behind 1-0 early, but it was kind of worth it Sunday to see Tim Hudson’s epic f-bomb while Wilin Rosario’s second-inning home run was still going up.

It was a weekend for epic bombs though. Pablo Sandoval came within a flagpole’s width of hammering splash-hit No. 64. There’s nothing like a Sunday walk-off homer that does tally the splash-hit meter — thank you very much, Brandon Crawford. But the bomb that stole the show was Madison Bumgarner’s fourth-inning grand slam Friday night.

It’s no secret Bumgarner can hit. Forget the .145 career batting average. Forget that he’s consistently been one of the least effective bunters on the Giants’ staff. Forget that he went 0-for-the-playoffs in both 2010 and ’12. When a guy hits an Andres Galarraga-esque grand slam in a crucial situation to give his team the lead, all the by-the-numbers jargon goes out the window.

Not to mention, Bumgarner is one of the most gifted young left-handed pitchers in the game. And the statistical category that matters most is his innings pitched column, which has registered 200-plus innings in each of the last three seasons. FYI, in 2010 he pitched 214 1/3 innings between Triple-A Fresno, the MLB regular season and the playoffs.

Probably the most important at bat of Bumgarner’s career came in 2010 though. It was a June 27 pinch-hit appearance against the Boston Red Sox at AT&T Park. It was just the fourth at bat of Bumgarner’s career. Insofar as five-pitch at bats that end in strikeouts go, none could be more valuable to a young player than the one Bumgarner had that day.

The game within the game of the situation was the Red Sox had one of the premier left-handers on the mound that afternoon in the person of Jon Lester. Lester was absolutely dealing that day. He would go on to tab a complete-game victory in allowing one run on five hits while striking out nine in a 5-1 Red Sox victory. But in that gem was an object lesson on how seamlessly an electric southpaw can dominate when he’s throwing darts.

That’s precisely what Bumgarner has been ever since he debuted as a professional pitcher with Low-A Augusta in 2008. He threw 141 2/3 innings for the Greenjackets that season, striking out 164 against just 21 walks en route to winning South Atlantic League Most Outstanding Pitcher honors.

Just two years later he was settling into the Giants’ major league rotation as, in the American League, Lester was etching his first of two consecutive All-Star seasons. And history now shows the similarities are many between the two lefties.

Lester has also been an innings eater throughout his career, surpassing the 200-inning mark in five of the last six seasons. The year he fell short in 2011, he only missed the mark by 8 1/3 innings. More importantly as it’s applicable to Bumgarner is Lester’s ability to dominate the inside half of the plate to right-handers.

And while the excitement surrounding Bumgarner’s 2010 call-up had many anticipating his plate appearances because he was being billed as the second coming of Don Robinson with a bat in his hands, the brilliance of manager Bruce Bochy was evident with that decision to pinch-hit Bumgarner so he could see first hand, as a right-handed batter himself, the way a southpaw dominates at the major league level.

Not that Bumgarner’s pinch-hit appearance against the Red Sox was a giveaway. As he showed Friday, he is capable of lighting up a baseball diamond like a pinball machine with one swing of the bat. But his swift emergence as one of the most uniquely dominant pitchers in the game has much to do with the rapid education he underwent since the day he started playing pro ball as an 18-year-old less than a year removed from high school.

And that 2010 pinch-hit appearance against Lester just may be synonymous with Bumgarner’s graduation day.


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