World Series 2012: Is Barry Zito or Madison Bumgarner a More Surprising Hero?

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World Series 2012: Is Barry Zito or Madison Bumgarner a More Surprising Hero?

In Game 1 of the World Series, the San Francisco Giants threw a pitcher with an 84 mile per hour fastball and unpredictable command at the Detroit Tigers. In Game 2, they threw a struggling young lefty who hadn't pitched in 11 days at the Tigers lineup.

Advantage Tigers?

Not in this postseason. Everything Bruce Bochy is doing is working, and that includes starting Barry Zito in Game 1 and Madison Bumgarner in Game 2. 

Zito pitched the Giants to an 8-3 victory in the series opener with 5.2 innings of shutout ball, and Bumgarner followed suit by pitching the Giants to a 2-0 nail-biter of a victory Thursday night with seven shutout innings in which he allowed only two hits and two walks.

The only offense the Giants could conjure in support of Bumgarner came courtesy a bases-loaded double-play ball off the bat of Brandon Crawford in the seventh and a sacrifice fly off the bat of Hunter Pence in the eighth, but it proved to be more than enough.

Game 2 highlights from San Francisco.

Shoot, given the way the Giants pitchers were throwing and the way Detroit's hitters were hacking away, the Giants probably would have been fine if they'd found a way to score even half a run.

So now here are the Giants with a commanding 2-0 series lead. They're only two wins away from their second championship in the last three years. All thanks to two unlikely heroes in Zito and Bumgarner. If you're a Giants fan, I'm guessing you're not a big fan of the word "unlikely" being used just now. Surely it's not that surprising that Zito and Bumgarner were so good in the first two games of the World Series.

Oh, but it is.

Zito came into the postseason with a 4.47 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in his career as a Giant, and his first start of the postseason saw him last just 2.2 innings against the Cincinnati Reds in Game 4 of the NLDS. For all anybody knew at that point, he was the same ol' Zito in the sense that he was about as reliable as a furnace made out of cardboard.

Bumgarner, for his part, had a successful regular season, going 16-11 with a 3.37 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP. However, he struggled to the tune of a 5.89 ERA in his final seven starts and then got lit up for 10 earned runs in only eight innings of work in his first two starts of the playoffs.

Once Bumgarner got demoted to the bullpen in the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals, the smart money was on him not starting again this postseason.

So yeah, I'd say the use of the word "unlikely" is warranted in this case. It's just a matter of which pitcher was more of an unlikely hero than the other. And that's kind of a tough question.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Barry Zito's game score against the Reds: 42.

For all his shortcomings in his Giants career, I'll grant that there was reason for hope for Zito's Game 1 World Series start Wednesday night. He was awful against the Reds in the NLDS, but he was quite good in Game 5 of the NLCS against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. He pitched 7.2 shutout innings, allowing only six hits and a walk and striking out six.

Even still, there were some questions lingering in the air after that start. Zito ended up with a clean pitching line, but he definitely had some flirtations with danger. He wasn't putting runners on base left and right, to be sure, but the PitchFX data (via BrooksBaseball.net) from his Game 5 start versus the Cards reveals that he got away with some pitches down the middle of the plate that could have been hit a long way.

And we know for a fact that these pitches could have been hit a long way, of course, because the Cardinals have a very good lineup and because Barry Zito was the one throwing to them. Not unlike Batman, Zito needs theatricality and deception. Otherwise, he's just a rich and famous pretty face.

The Tigers don't pack a lineup as deep as St. Louis', but Zito could have easily found himself in trouble Wednesday night if he was throwing too many pitches over the heart of the plate like he was against the Cardinals. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are both very much capable of eating pitchers who are a "little off" alive, and hot hitters like Austin Jackson and Delmon Young were waiting to devour Zito as well.

But nope. Zito's performance was similar in many respects to his performance in Game 2 of the NLCS. So were the results, which just goes to show that Zito is in one of those grooves right now. He could get away with stealing gold from a dragon, never mind batting-practice fastballs right down the chute.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Madison Bumgarner's game score against the Tigers: 22.

Bumgarner, meanwhile, was certainly not in one of those grooves heading into his start in Game 2. He made a ton of mistakes in the strike zone in Game 1 of the NLCS, and the Cardinals didn't let him get away with any of them.

It didn't help that Bumgarner had clearly lost some zip off his fastball and some bite off his breaking stuff. All signs pointed toward him being affected by fatigue, mechanical problems, some sort of plague or perhaps all three rolled into one.

And if we're being honest, the eye test revealed Bumgarner to be about the same on Thursday night as he was in his last start. His fastball, which can reach as high as 93 or 94 mph, was right around 89 and 90 all night and his breaking stuff was hardly unhittable.

To boot, Bumgarner's control was just as unpredictable as it was the last time he was on the mound. He managed to throw first-pitch strikes to only 10 of the 23 hitters he faced, and he only got 12 called strikes all night. He actually got more swinging strikes, 13, than he did called strikes, which is the kind of factoid that ends up on @cantpredictball's Twitter feed.

But it worked. I hesitate to use the term "effectively wild," but that's exactly what Bumgarner was. He wasn't pounding the strike zone, but Tigers hitters found many of his pitches too tempting to lay off and quite a few of them too hard to hit. As the game went on, they only got more and more bewildered and Bumgarner, in turn, only got to be more and more untouchable.

It wasn't your typical dominant Bumgarner outing, to be sure, but we'd all be remiss if we didn't recognize the fact that his outing on Thursday night wasn't entirely unprecedented. He was dominant in the last World Series start he made as well, pitching eight shutout innings with only three hits allowed against the Texas Rangers in Game 4 of the 2010 Fall Classic.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Justin Verlander's World Series ERA: 7.20.

If Justin Verlander's World Series track record is any indication, dominating in the World Series is not a simple matter of flipping a switch or, in his case, gripping it and ripping it. Something about it requires a little more care and focus, and perhaps some sorcery (see "luck") as well.

If Verlander can't even manage one dominant start in the Series, one must appreciate the fact that Bumgarner already has two dominant World Series starts under his belt at the age of 23 (mind = blown). The Fall Classic is a different animal, and Bumgarner knows how to tame it.

If the World Series is indeed that much of a different animal, one also has no choice but to appreciate what Zito did in Game 1 even more. He was making his first ever World Series start. In addition, he was dealing with the added difficulty of slaying whatever demons were left over from his being left off the roster for the 2010 Series. 

Yet Zito went out there and pitched like he was doing something he had done before many times. He looked like he belonged.

And that, to me, is what makes Zito's excellence in Game 1 stand out as being more of a shocker compared to Bumgarner's excellence in Game 2. Bumgarner did something he had done before. Zito did something he had never done before, not to mention something that even the greats have struggled to do over the years.

Did it cross my mind that it could happen?

Which performance caught you more by surprise?

Submit Vote vote to see results

Sure. I had my doubts, but I knew anything was possible after watching Zito shut down the Cardinals in the NLCS.

Did I actually expect it to happen?  Hell no.

I've always found that the best course of action where Zito is concerned is to hope for the best and plan for the worst, especially when he's due to face hitters like Cabrera and Fielder with the best pitcher in baseball penciled in as his opponent.

In all honesty, it was a game that Zito had no business winning. He won it anyway, and I'll be damned if I saw it coming.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. 

 

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