Don’t Piss Off Madison Bumgarner

The best big-game pitcher in the Majors is a mild-mannered farm boy who can't stand losing.
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The best big-game pitcher in the Majors is a mild-mannered farm boy who can't stand losing.
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Madison Bumgarner is part of the sort of club guys like Madison Bumgarner don’t try to join: an elite club. After torpedoing the Pirates in the National League Wild-Card, Bumgarner became only the third pitcher to register double-digit strikeouts in a postseason shutout. The other two? Justin Verlander and Sandy Koufax.

Unlike those guys, Bumgarner isn’t dating Kate Upton (he married his high school sweetheart) and isn’t on the shortlist for “Best Ever” (he’s just 25 years old). The 6-foot-5, 235-pound southpaw, who will attempt to clinch the NLDS against the Nationals tonight, may have the best postseason record in baseball, but he remains the farm boy he’s always been. He’s got a 100-acre spread in rural North Carolina, the least ironic beard in the Major Leagues, and the snarl of a small-town brawler.

During his pre-game press conference on Sunday, the man the fans call “MadBum" showcased the attitude that has made him so effective – and so intimidating. When a reporter asked him about whether he was concerned with his first inning struggles (he’s got a 5.73 ERA for the first three outs), his response was monosyllabic.

“What?” he said. It wasn’t really a question.

The expression on his face was familiar to everyone in the room. The assembled reporters had watched the Giants’ late-season series against the Dodgers, during which Bumgarner plunked Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig then dropped his glove and started shouting, “Let’s go! Come on! Let’s go!” Puig, a 235-pound block of muscle, looked, in that moment, like a man about to get his ass whooped.

Suffice it to say, the reporter who asked about Bumgarner’s first inning woes didn’t pursue the line of questioning.

“This is what you work and play all season for,” Bumgarner told the group. “It’s exciting to get amped and pumped up. But, for me, I don’t think you play as good a baseball. You have to push nerves, anxiety aside.”

But the big man isn’t fooling anyone. He hit a homer after the flair up with Puig; he pitched eight shutout innings in the World Series as a 21 year old; he pitched a complete game against Pittsburgh because he could. The guy embraces pressure. “We look to him for big performances,” says catcher Buster Posey. But Bumgarner, for his part, doesn’t look under the hood. Asked whether his crossfire delivery – he seems to reach all the way back to second before releasing mid-nineties fastballs –  was designed to confuse batters, he sort of shrugs. “I never thought about it much,” he says, sounding constitutionally incapable of lying.

Bumgarner leaves the press with a few more thoughts: “There’s a reason the Nationals had the best record in the regular season,” “It’s not about you,” and “We have to stay hungry.” Then, conference finished, he pushes his chair away from the microphone on the table and slides out the side door. He looks relieved to get out of the soft-focus media spotlight and ready to take the mound in front of 41,000 screaming Giants fans who know precisely what he is.

Madison Bumgarner is a kid from rural North Carolina. Madison Bumgarner is a big game pitcher. 

Photos by Associated Press