Thursday, 30 October 2014

Game Seven for the Ages

A champion. Again.

It all came down to one man, one ball, one strike zone. After nine exhausting months of daily exertion. After 2,461 games between 30 hopeful teams. After 258 days spent rattling around ballparks and rummaging through airports. After a million pitches, a thousand grounders, and hundreds of fly balls. One man. One ball. One strike zone.

What sport but baseball could hold enraptured for the best part of an entire year a global fanbase of millions? What sport, played for three hours every single day from burgeoning spring to encroaching winter, could twist so much, turn so much, and all without discerning it's final famous outcome until the very end? What sport could host a billion micro-battles each summer, between pitcher and hitter, hitter and defence, defence and data, yet still shroud it's ultimate champion in a cloak of invincibility until one last, winner-takes-all contest?

What other sport but baseball?

Every kid who ever picked up a mitt has done a thousand times in fantasy what last night Madison Bumgarner did in real life. Game Seven of the World Series. Crowd thrumming to a beat of stirring passion; world watching your every move. Complete and utter dominance. A place in the annals of history.

Bumgarner, a young man of remarkable calm, poise and talent, joined the many millions who have pitched 21 innings in a singular World Series, including five shutout frames on barely two days rest in the wake of a complete game, and compiled a 2-0 record with 1 epic save, a ridiculous 0.43 ERA and a WHIP of 0.476. The difference between Madison and the aforementioned many millions? He did it at Kauffman Stadium before 40,535 screaming fans, whilst everybody else did it in the backyard with only low-flying, voyeuristic birds for company.

He's incredible,” offered Michael Morse, whose broken-bat, fourth-inning flair to right field scored Pablo Sandoval and forced the Giants into a 3-2 lead that would prove unassailable. “He's a different human being.”

Indeed. And baseball is a different sport.

For sheer, human-wrought drama, any World Series Game 7 is unparalleled in the sporting realm. Gridiron has it's Super Bowl, but those teams carry gargantuan rosters, play barely twenty games a season, and often have seven days of rest and rehabilitation between duels. Similarly, football has the Champions League, but, again, those contests are sporadic, the champion largely determined by finance not skill, commerce not craft, business not talent.

In stark contrast, Major League Baseball, slowly morphing into a paragon of competitive balance and fiscal parity, is far more organic, far more believable, far more achievable for the everyday man. This past week, we were treated to a championship clash not of major market juggernauts or high-powered mercenary units, but of two mid-market teams who nurtured potential into stardom, found the magic formula, and worked towards a common goal.

How can baseball be dying when it still symbolises so clearly the very dream to which America, a nation alive and kicking, aspires?

Not for many years have I enjoyed a World Series like this one, so dominated was it by new names, fresh faces and strategic baseball. We had San Francisco, teetering on the cusp of a greatness having won in 2010 and 2012. We had Kansas City, without a World Series appearance since 1985, with only two winning seasons in the past decade. It was a tale of dynasty and destiny, of human aspiration, of immense sporting evolution. It was truly absorbing.

The absence of the Red Sox, Yankees, Cardinals and Dodgers enraged many people. As we were persistently told, not many tuned in. The worst World Series of all-time, they said. How wrong can you be? Far from being the most dreary encounter imaginable, this was one of the most enjoyable, unsolvable, hopelessly entertaining Fall Classic's in recent memory.

These two teams, well-matched and alike in results yet distinctively different in philosophy and approach, basically played to an impasse, except the superhuman efforts of Bumgarner and his wingmen named Pablo and Pence. For the longest time, they stood toe-to-toe and, with refreshing dignity and smiley respect, knocked the living daylights out of one another.
In this undulating Series, which underscored the thorough capriciousness of baseball, we saw blowouts and nail-biters, offensive ingenuity and defensive brilliance. We saw bright young stars emerge, ready to lead with impish energy a new post-Selig, post-Jeter era of baseball; stars with names like Panik and Cain, Hosmer and Gordon. We saw seven unique battles of wit and wisdom; we saw perhaps the most commanding body of work ever spun by a World Series pitcher; and, finally, we saw one breathless tussle to decide a champion.

Going in to Game 7, nobody had any idea what to expect. Nobody had any idea how to even begin with predictions and prognostications. I had no answer to the question “what will happen in this game?,” should anybody have posed it. Aside from the home crowd backing Kansas City and the accumulative experienced padding San Francisco, neither team had a clear advantage. It was a pure contest; a tribute to Bud Selig, who fought so hard for parity and, having last night witnessed the greatest triumph of competitive balance in a generation, will now depart this bustling arena.

It was a crisp night in Kansas City. Clear. Cool. Dry. Jeremy Guthrie, a noble journeyman who earned my eternal gratitude by once venturing to Britain simply to coach kids in Milton Keynes, threw the first pitch, a changeup strike, at 8.10pm ET, 12.10am GMT. Game on.

The Giants were retired in order in the first, a smart reflex play by Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas robbing Buster Posey of a hit. To the reverberating echo of “MOOOOOSE!,” Kansas City was first to enjoy a surge of momentum.

Watching the Giants' Tim Hudson work in the home half of the first, one became aware that, for baseball fans, this was our last treat of a lengthy season; one last game of punch and counter-punch, of nuance and intricacy and romance as a parting gift before winter. Hudson walked Nori Aoki and, presently, the rounded mountain edge could be felt under foot and in the gut. The veteran gritted his teeth some more and, with true courage, bounced back to retire Cain and Hosmer and end the early threat.

When, leading off the second, Pablo Sandoval was grazed by a Guthrie pitch, the warm fluid of momentum coursed anew into Giant loins. Hunter Pence went down and, with surgeon-like precision, fired a single through the infield and into left, putting runners at first and second with no outs for Brandon Belt. A rally by normal standards; a humongous opportunity in the Seventh Game of a World Series.

Belt lashed a single of his own to right, loading the bases with Sandoval stopping at third. Morse, lanky and languid, strode to the dish and drove a searing sac fly to Aoki, scoring Sandoval with that crucial first run and moving Pence to third, from whence he scored on a further sacrifice from Brandon Crawford. Two-zip, Giants, through an inning-and-a-third.

It's always important to strike back after going behind. Better to thwart the beast than allow it to run amok. The Royals, defying belief yet again, rose from the canvas, with Billy Butler singling up the middle leading off their half of the second. Alex Gordon followed soon thereafter with a meandering liner into the right-centre field gap. Propelled by a rumbling roar from a raucous Royals crowd, Butler chugged round the bases and, with an emphatic slide, scored ahead of the throw. Kauffman Stadium, this sleepy old yard, was transformed into a gyrating maelstrom of whirring blue emotion. Hope and belief rose where uncertainty and worry were creeping in.

Salvador Perez, the Royals' irreplaceable catcher, was plunked, handing Kansas City a two-on, no-out situation of its own. Moustakas lofted a fly ball to left which, though caught easily, allowed Gordon to advance ninety feet. He scored, tying the game, when Omar Infante flew to Gregor Blanco in centre. Two-two, through two.

As fans, we were living with every pitch, trying to anticipate the strategy which seeped from every pore. We wondered whether Bochy would employ Bumgarner in the third inning, whether Ned Yost would turn it over to his superb bullpen super early. It was baseball on a knife's edge, with no room to breathe, with no thought for tomorrow.

Hudson recorded just five outs before being ousted in favour of Jeremy Affeldt, who delivered seven more, adding and subtracting and getting San Fran into the middle innings. Guthrie, on the other hand, lasted a little longer, into the fourth, before handing the keys to Kelvin Herrera, who was greeted by Morse's splintered bat single which pushed the Giants ahead, 3-2.

Along the way, Joe Panik, playing with a suave rectitude belying his years, started perhaps the most mesmeric double play in World Series history; a hush of self-introversion settled upon the thronging masses; and, with a couple out in the fourth, Madison Bumgarner began to warm up. The Giants were going with their best, their horse, their warrior trojan ace.

His introduction momentarily energised the Kansas City crowd, which rediscovered its fight and, when Infante laced a leadoff single, rediscovered its voice. The momentum, ever so nomadic in baseball, began oscillating wildly with each and every pitch. The game became a study in the grim psychology of winning at the elite level. How would the Royals deal with Bumgarner, as the reality of their monumental task began to dawn and daunt? Conversely, how would San Francisco deal with inching ever closer to true dynastic status, true immortality? How would it all play out?

This sharp and biting juxtaposition is why we love sports, why we invest so much in them and project onto them so many of our hopes and dreams. In its most extreme moments, sport, particularly baseball, provides an insight into the mind and mentality of champions. It's Madison Bumgarner staring vacantly from the bench, calm, composed, immersed in a zone of gross concentration we'll never know nor experience. It's Joe Panik, flush-faced and twitchy, muttering to himself esoteric instructions relating to the task at hand. It's Buster Posey, suffering silently through physical and emotional exhaustion that is largely ineffable. We can only marvel at the immense human effort required to win at this level. We can only marvel.

Bumgarner worked his way through initial danger in the fifth, rebounding to whiff Cain and end the threat. Ominously, he got better as the frame went on. Working on barely two days rest, a pitcher is liable to lose velocity and command. Bumgarner showed a little rust with his first half-dozen deliveries, before finding that impenetrable groove, that sweet melodic rhythm. Soon, Posey's mitt was popping. Soon, Madison was snapping the ball, pounding it up and down, in and out. Soon, it became clear that, contrary to any notion of pitch counts and work loads, Bumgarner was just as good as ever, and the Royals were in whole heaps of trouble.

In the middle innings, namely the sixth, every pitch brought a new twist, a new story, a new complexion to this great and beguiling game. Morse struck out looking to end the top half, evoking a cascading cheer from the crowd, full again of swaying optimism. Then, Hosmer, Butler and Gordon, Kansas City's finest, ran into the Bumgarner Buzz-saw, retired easily in order.

The tension remained. In a World Series Game 7, score lodged at 3-2 in the waning hours, anything can happen. Absolutely anything. You can be one pitch away from greatness, one pitch away from death. One hit away from Thomson, one miss away from Branca. One catch away from Mays, one hop away from Buckner. One throw away from Jeter, one pause away from Pesky.

Bumgarner chose to etch his name in history rather than infamy, mowing down the tired, flailing, increasingly inept Royals with complete tranquillity. In one of the most stressful spots sports can muster, he really did just play like it was any other game. At home. In a backyard. On a farm. He doesn't concern himself with comparisons to heroes named Matthewson and Johnson and Young. He doesn't even concern himself too much with the attendant hyperbole of baseball. Rather, he just demands the baseball from Posey, straddles that raised mound, and pours in some of the nastiest, most cunning stuff you're ever likely to see.

One man, one ball, one strike zone.

If we return, momentarily, to every fantasy Game 7 ever played at home or in the daydreaming mind, let me ask you a question. Did you ever lose? No, of course you didn't! You were superhuman. You were untouchable, the greatest player ever to lace a pair of cleats. You operated on a higher plane, in control of the entire situation like Shakespeare before a desk offering pen and paper. Likewise with Madison Bumgarner. He was in total command, just like you as a kid. He even gave up an extra-base hit to Gordon with two outs in the ninth to heighten the drama; had the outfielders kick it around a little until he was safe at third, ninety feet away with the tying run.

Might as well have been ninety miles, because Bumgarner was the author here.

Finally, Perez hoisted a meek pop foul on the third base side. Sandoval raced in and, squeezing it and collapsing in a heap, supplied the full stop, the exclamation point, the bridge to dynastic living.

Another masterpiece.

Another ring.

Another southpaw welcomed into the pantheon of legends.

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