Bumgarner short on birthday candles, long on talent

Bumgarner short on birthday candles, long on talent

Bumgarner short on birthday candles, long on talent
Chatting quietly while munching on an ice-cream candy bar in the Giants clubhouse before a late-season game, Madison Bumgarner doesn't seem far removed from his teen years. Maybe it's because he's not.

At age 23 as of August, Bumgarner already has a World Series ring from his rookie year and two full seasons as a top-rung Major League starter behind him. His baseball career has been on fast-forward pretty much since he left high school -- or, really, before then.

Entering the 2012 postseason, the Giants are asking plenty of this left-hander who's always been on the right track. Tabbed for the Game 2 start against the Reds in the National League Division Series on Sunday, Bumgarner has become the Giants' No. 2 starter behind Matt Cain, thanks in part to Tim Lincecum's struggles, but also based on his own consistency over the course of the season.

Maybe it's all happened quickly for the 6-foot-5 North Carolina native, maybe not. For Bumgarner, it's just the way it is, and he's enjoying the ride into October a second time.

Reds vs. Giants

"It doesn't seem like it's happened all that fast, but whether it has or it hasn't, I don't really have another way to judge it, so I wouldn't really know," Bumgarner said. "It's definitely fun, and it's what you play for. You try to be in the playoffs every year."

Two years out of three isn't bad for Bumgarner, who stepped up into the national spotlight in the 2010 playoffs. Completely unfazed in demeanor and delivery but with clear competitive fire, he first pitched the clincher in the Division Series against the Braves, and then delivered a body blow to the Rangers in Game 5 of the World Series with eight shutout innings.

It was after that NLDS game that Bumgarner remarked, "This is obviously the biggest game I've ever thrown. But in high school, throwing in the state championship game, at the time, that's a big game to a high school kid. I think that actually made a difference tonight."

What made perfect sense as a point of reference for a young athlete, then just 21 years old, also serves as a glimpse of a young man who still isn't that far removed from his hometown of Hudson, N.C. That's where he was born and raised and still spends the offseason on a 38-acre spread -- room enough for horses and the 5-day-old bull calf he presented his wife, Ali, as a wedding gift in 2010.

His calm, determined demeanor on the mound shows that Bumgarner comes from a place -- mentally, at least, if not geographically -- where things aren't all that complicated. You work hard at what you do, you focus on the job at hand and good things happen. (Having the frame of a Steve Carlton doesn't hurt, either.)

"He's been humble, and I've always said he does things simple," says Jeff Parham, his high school coach at South Caldwell High. "He lives his life simple. He doesn't make it complex. He comes every day to work and he's just consistent with what he does, and that's why you know what you're going to get out of him."

Says Bumgarner: "I think it's got a lot to do with the way you're brought up and the people who are put in your path to help you through life and through learning the game of baseball."

*****

On a baseball level, Parham is one of those people.

"It was four great years I'll never forget," said Parham, still the baseball coach at South Caldwell as well as the athletic director and women's basketball coach.

Parham says the first indication of how special Bumgarner could be -- and perhaps of how he would go on to carry himself in the Major League spotlight -- came at the end of his first season, playing varsity as a lanky freshman. The season finale was against Alexander Central, then undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the state.

"I said to him, 'Madison, I want you to visualize how it's going to look in the paper saying that Bumgarner shuts out the No. 1 team in the state.' I could just see in his mindset the next day he was focused," Parham said.

Sure enough, Bumgarner was the winning pitcher in a 1-0 victory, getting the last three outs after the game was delayed when the lights went out.

"He grew up a lot right there, and from then on, it was on," Parham said.

Parham recalls how he used to say, "Is that all you got?" to Bumgarner. And he remembers the time he said it between the sixth and seven innings and received a loud retort with Bumgarner barely opening his mouth.

"He turned to me, put his hat on, said, 'No, sir,' and he walked on the mound and threw 96. I remember that pitch he threw, I mean, it sizzled and it popped," Parham said.

After pitching South Caldwell to the title in the 2007 championship game, plating the winning run on an inside-the-park homer to finish with a .424 average for the season, Bumgarner embarked on his professional career.

*****

Not surprisingly, the road through the Minors was swift and successful for the 10th-overall pick in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft. In Bumgarner's first pro season in '08, he won the Class A South Atlantic League pitching Triple Crown, going 15-3 with a 1.46 ERA and 164 strikeouts. He tore through Class A San Jose after five starts in '09 and went from Double-A Connecticut to making his Major League debut in September.

After 14 starts at Triple-A, and ironically shortly after an uncharacteristic but widely publicized ejection, he was up in the Majors for good, finishing his Minor League career with a 34-6 record and 2.00 ERA.

"In '09 when I played with him, he was basically a fastball guy," said Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford, who played with Bumgarner in San Jose and Connecticut. "He had a little bit of a slider and not much of a change, so he was getting guys out with almost all fastballs, which was pretty impressive. He was dominating."

Back then, Crawford says the younger Bumgarner would get upset if an opposing player got a hit. That's just not the case anymore.

"Now, he gives up a hit, gives up a home run or he strikes out the side, he's the same guy. He goes about his business in a professional way," Crawford said.

That much was apparent when Bumgarner took the mound two Octobers ago in Atlanta, throwing six strong innings and getting the victory with a two-run rally by the Giants in the seventh. Faced with a crucial assignment under intense pressure, Bumgarner delivered.

Former teammate Travis Ishikawa remembers congratulating Bumgarner on his Division Series start, only to have him complain that he went 0-for-2 at the plate.

Recalls Ishikawa, now with the Brewers: "I'm looking at him like, 'You're a 21-year-old kid, you just pitched in the biggest game of your life, and you're worried about your at-bats? Are you kidding me right now?'"

Bumgarner had made a statement by being cool beyond his years in the game of his life.

"Yeah, his demeanor is just ... I'm sure every manager would tell you they'd want five of him in their starting rotation, seven of him in the bullpen and 13 of him at the plate," Ishikawa said.

*****

And now, here he is, back in the postseason, probably looking for a couple of base hits in Game 2.

Bumgarner's not a finished product, as some struggles down the stretch suggest. He went 2-2 with a 5.47 ERA in five September starts, and the last time he went into the seventh inning was eight shutout innings against the Dodgers on Aug. 20.

But that hasn't stopped the Giants from handing him the ball for Game 2.

"I definitely feel like I'm still developing in a lot of ways," Bumgarner said. "I'm continuing to learn about mechanics. I feel like I'm still learning a lot and there's still a lot of improvement to go.

"I'm just looking for that consistency. I don't know if that'll ever happen, because it seems like guys are always having to fight to stay where they want to be. But I feel like I've learned a lot this year, and learned a lot the past month, also."

Before his September slide, he was right alongside the veteran Cain in terms of ERA and other numbers. All season, he's been standing alongside Cain as much as he can, picking the 28-year-old veteran's brain.

"I drive that guy over there crazy, asking questions every day," Bumgarner says.

Of course, Cain doesn't mind at all.

"He comes to me with things that he's thinking mechanically because he and I, in a way, even if we're on opposite sides, we still have similar styles we like to throw," Cain said. "We're both kind of big-body guys who get a turn on the mound. So I try to think of keys that have helped me in my career and relay them to him."

Cain is the ultimate in cool on the mound himself, but that's one aspect of pitching in the Major Leagues that Bumgarner hasn't needed help.

"He's been that since Day 1," Cain says. "The first time he threw in Spring Training, he was throwing against the Dodgers toward the end of Spring Training, and he says, 'Hey, man, what do I throw Manny Ramirez?' I said, 'Well, you've got to throw him in.' First pitch is in, second pitch is in. He took it all right in stride, and I think he was 18 or 19 at the time."

As Cain talks after the late-season game, Bumgarner sneaks another ice-cream candy bar out of the freezer for the ride home. "Another one? Come on," Cain tells his younger teammate.

Bumgarner's all of 23 years old, has back-to-back 200-inning seasons behind him and a lot of Major League road ahead of him. For now, he's headed toward the playoffs, again.

"It's always fun to play the game, but that's when it really gets fun," he says. "Nobody tries to think about stats anyway, but that's when you throw the stats out the window, throw everything else out the window, and you're just out there having fun."

John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. Chris Haft contributed to this article. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.