MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

Bumgarner gives Giants effective answer to Kershaw

SF southpaw establishing himself among game's elite pitchers

Bumgarner gives Giants effective answer to Kershaw

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Madison Bumgarner was born in 1989, just as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were winding down an epic NBA rivalry. Before becoming Dream Team 'mates in 1992 in the Barcelona Olympics, Magic and Bird admittedly used each other to lift themselves to legendary heights.

"I was always aware of Larry, everything he did," Magic once said. "I'd spend my summers working on something new, adding something to my game -- because I knew that's what Larry was doing."

Bird echoed those sentiments, talking about how Johnson's greatness forced him to be totally committed to keeping his Celtics on even ground with Magic's Lakers.

There could be something along these lines brewing in the National League West with Bumgarner, San Francisco's emerging star, and fellow southpaw Clayton Kershaw, the Los Angeles ace acknowledged fairly universally as the best pitcher in baseball.

Bumgarner, who turns 25 in on Aug. 1, doesn't have Kershaw's two Cy Young Awards or three Major League ERA titles. But he has improved during each of his three seasons since his 2010 Major League debut, with the promise of more great things to come for a Giants team looking to make 2014 as magical as its '10 and '12 World Series championship clubs.

"It could happen," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said on Sunday morning, when asked about the potential of a Bumgarner-Kershaw division rivalry. "They could be facing each other quite a bit down the road.

"You look at Clayton Kershaw, everything he's accomplished, and Madison, with the [2013] year he had establishing himself as one of the elite left-handers in the game. Hopefully, that is the case. You have one guy who sets a bar that high, you want to say you're in that class."

Bumgarner sees none of the Magic-Bird dynamic at work as he goes about the business of sharpening his impressive tools.

"I don't need Kershaw to want to be a better pitcher," the man from North Carolina said.

Bochy gets Bumgarner's blunt point.

"Great players are all self-motivated," Bochy said. "At the same time, a great pitcher knows that if you're going against a great pitcher, you have to be at the top of your game.

"Sure, they're facing each other. But it's not the same as basketball, where guys are going one-on-one. It's a different kind of competition."

Unlike Magic and Bird, who didn't like each other until they filmed a famous sneaker commercial together one offseason, Bumgarner and Kershaw "are pretty good friends," according to the Giants pitcher.

"He's an awesome guy," Bumgarner added. "He's definitely somebody you're happy to see have all the success he's had. He's one of the best people I know."

When he isn't picking up Cy Young hardware, Kershaw is winning humanitarian awards for his efforts with his wife and their foundation to lift the world's less fortunate.

Bumgarner and Kershaw have come to know each other on the field, in weight rooms at each park and in occasional social settings. They were All-Star Game teammates last summer at Citi Field in New York -- with Kershaw pitching a scoreless inning for a third consecutive year, while Bumgarner did not get a call to the mound in his All-Star debut.

Bumgarner finished 13-9 with a 2.77 ERA across 201 1/3 innings. He's 49-39 with a 3.08 ERA in his career in 118 appearances, all but three as a starter.

Kershaw, who will be 26 on March 19, was 16-9 and his 1.83 ERA led the Majors for the third consecutive season. He's 77-46 with 2.60 ERA in 184 career appearances, 182 as a starter.

In head-to-head competition, Bumgarner has prevailed the past two times they've faced off -- a 4-2 win last season and 2-1 victory in 2012, both at Dodger Stadium. Kershaw took a 6-1 decision in 2011 at AT&T Park.

As hitters, it's all Kershaw. He's 3-for-5, all singles, against Bumgarner, who is 1-for-7 against the Dodgers ace, with four punchouts. In Bumgarner's victory at Dodger Stadium in 2012, Kershaw had two of the four hits yielded by Bumgarner in his eight scoreless innings.

Kershaw homered on Opening Day last year in his shutout of the Giants, going on to lead NL pitchers with 10 RBIs while batting .182. Bumgarner, a .424 hitter with power his senior year of high school, is a .138 Major League hitter with two homers, both in 2012.

"Madison's got raw power, but right now it's not translating at the plate," Bochy said. "He's got the potential to be one of the better hitting pitchers in the game."

Both men have dominated their division rivals. Kershaw owns an astounding 1.38 career ERA against the Giants in 157 innings, limiting batters to a .180 average while going 11-5 in 22 outings.

Bumgarner is 8-3 with a 2.58 ERA 12 games against Los Angeles. At Dodger Stadium, he's 5-2 with a 1.86 ERA, holding hitters to a .211 batting average.

"I feel like we're completely different in our style [as pitchers]," Bumgarner said, dismissing any notion he can pick up some things watching Kershaw at work.

Kershaw is over-the-top in his delivery and leans more heavily on the fastball than Bumgarner, a slinger who throws more offspeed pitches, notably a wicked slider, than heaters. There are few with Bumgarner's style -- or raw strength -- that enables him to get deep in games.

Bumgarner became more efficient with his pitches last season, maintaining a high strikeout level (8.9 per nine innings), while lowering his WHIP to a career-best 1.033 and facing fewer batters.

"There are lots of ways to get better," Bumgarner said. "At times, I've let pride get in my way, and it's cost me some pitches, on home runs."

His philosophy on getting outs?

"Whatever's fastest," he said.

Bumgarner wastes words like he wastes pitches. Rarely.

Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.