SAN FRANCISCO — If it was an elimination game, OK, you try to save the season. You ignore that San Francisco left-hander Madison Bumgarner has never pitched on three days’ rest. You ignore the history of starting pitchers struggling on short rest in October. You go for broke, knowing there might not be a tomorrow.
Game 4 is not an elimination game. The Giants trail the World Series only two games to one after Friday’s 3-2 loss to the Kansas City Royals. And Giants manager Bruce Bochy made the absolute right call after the defeat when he said he would stick with right-hander Ryan Vogelsong rather than push Bumgarner beyond his normal limits.
At worst, the Giants will go down three games to one with Bumgarner pitching Game 5 on Sunday and possibly out of the bullpen in Game 7, if necessary. So, they effectively could use Bumgarner twice anyway, under much more favorable conditions than if they asked him to pitch both Games 4 and 7 on short rest.
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Bochy has right-handers Yusmeiro Petit and Tim Lincecum available in long relief if Vogelsong gets knocked out early on Saturday night. The rest of Bochy’s bullpen also is in reasonably good shape — Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo and Jeremy Affeldt each threw fewer than 20 pitches in the Game 3 loss, Santiago Casilla only three.
Talking with Bochy before the game, it was clear that he was uncomfortable with the idea of pitching Bumgarner on short rest. He mentioned that starting pitchers in this era are trained to pitch on the fifth day. He winced at the thought of potentially needing Bumgarner to twice extend himself on short rest.
Bumgarner, 25, is not a machine. He already has pitched at least seven innings in all five of his postseason starts, and a total of 256 innings on the season. He would not necessarily risk getting hurt by pitching in Game 4. But what are the odds that the Giants would get his best?
Since the playoff expansion in 1995, pitchers have made 99 starts on short rest in the postseason, according to STATS LLC. Their combined ERA is 4.71. Their combined team record is 38-61. And keep in mind, those numbers were produced by top starting pitchers. Teams don’t turn to marginal starters on short rest in the biggest games of the year.
Bochy, in his pregame news conference, did not rule out pitching Bumgarner in Game 4 and presumably coming back with Vogelsong in Game 5. Bumgarner said that he did not throw his normal bullpen session between starts to keep Bochy’s options open. But afterward, Bochy said he would not shift course simply because the Giants had lost a one-run game.
As I’ve written previously, Bochy has used a starter on short rest only three times in the regular season during his eight years with the Giants, and never in the postseason. It’s not that he’s philosophically opposed to pushing a starter in such fashion. It’s just that he always had enough quality starters to avoid it.
In Bochy’s view, nothing has changed. He expressed confidence in Vogelsong, who pitched well against the Nationals and poorly against the Cardinals in his two previous starts this postseason. Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson, both of whom have pitched decently in this series, would line up for Games 6 and 7, if necessary.
If the Giants don’t start hitting, it won’t matter which pitcher starts. Their offensive mission is clear: take an early lead, avoid the Royals’ bullpen. But in the past two games, they’ve been largely shut down, scoring a total of four runs and going a combined 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position.
Perhaps the Giants will fare better against left-hander Jason Vargas; they sure had trouble Friday night against Jeremy Guthrie. Another loss, and the Giants will need to win three straight games to win the Series, including the final two in Kansas City. But a win would put Bumgarner in position to give the Giants the Series lead. He then would be available to help nail down Game 7, coming out of the bullpen like Randy Johnson did for the Diamondbacks in 2001.
It’s the right plan, regardless of what happens in the Vogelsong-Vargas matchup. One way or another, the Giants will need to win Game 5. And because Bochy refuses to panic, they will have their ace on the mound, properly rested, ready to go.