For the next two weeks, The Case for ... will feature a Sportsman of the Year candidate. Find more nominees at SI.com/sportsman
HE KEPT RETURNING to the mound, and why not? In postseason history, had any pitcher been as effective for so long a stretch? The Giants' Madison Bumgarner had surrendered all of six earned runs in six starts, throwing no fewer than seven innings each time; with the World Series tied at two games apiece, he had shut out the Royals on four hits. Now manager Bruce Bochy was asking his 25-year-old lefthander to hold a 3--2 lead in Game 7 in Kansas City. No reliever had ever earned a five-inning save in the playoffs—let alone one who had thrown 117 pitches in a start three days earlier.
His left arm swinging back wide from his 6'5", 235-pound body, then whipping toward the plate, Bumgarner delivered searing four-seam fastballs, sprinkled with cutters, curves and changeups. He blanked the Royals in the fifth. And the sixth. And the seventh. And the eighth. With two outs in the ninth he gave up his second hit when Alex Gordon lined a single that got by centerfielder Gregor Blanco, allowing Gordon to reach third.
San Francisco's closer, Santiago Casilla, was ready in the bullpen; the righty had yet to give up a run in the postseason. Yet with righthanded-hitting Salvador Perez at the plate, Bumgarner remained on the mound, his demeanor, in the words of GM Brian Sabean, "like glass." Six high heaters later—on Bumgarner's 68th pitch of the night—Perez popped to third, and the Giants popped the champagne on their third championship in five seasons.
Durability, dependability, unflappability—Bumgarner exhibited all of those traits in the 2014 playoffs. But the word often applied to pitchers is the one that sticks to him like resin: command. In start after start Bumgarner commanded his fastball, the plate, his emotions, the moment. He began the playoffs with a four-hit shutout of the Pirates in the National League wild-card game, then ended it with a stretch of brilliance not seen in the Series since Koufax: 21 innings, nine hits, one run, one walk, 17 strikeouts, two wins and one outlandish save. For his total command of October, Bumgarner should be SI's Sportsman of the Year.
Consider: Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers won the Cy Young and MVP awards—a double that hadn't been achieved in the NL since Bob Gibson in 1968. Yet it was another lefty from the NL West who claimed 2014 for posterity. Bumgarner was hardly an underachiever in the regular season: He went 18--10 with a 2.98 ERA and a 1.090 WHIP. Where he was at his best, though, was when it mattered most: No pitcher has done more to carry a team to a title.
Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong, San Francisco's other three starters in the playoffs, were a combined 24--39 during 2014; in October they went 1--3 with a 5.47 ERA in 49 1/3 innings. Over his 52 2/3 innings—the most ever thrown in a single postseason—Bumgarner was 4--1 with a 1.03 ERA, third best in postseason history (minimum 30 innings). He dropped his career ERA in the World Series to an unprecedented 0.25 (minimum 20 innings). "He is so calm that it leaks into you," said Giants outfielder Hunter Pence, "so confident that it leaks into us."
Bumgarner was the fifth starter on the Giants' 2010 title team; on the '12 champs he was No. 2 in the rotation. This year he was their ace in spades. "I wasn't thinking about innings or pitch count," Bumgarner said after Game 7. "I was just thinking about getting outs, getting outs until I couldn't get them anymore." Then he—and the Royals—were done.
It was a stretch of brilliance not seen in the Series since Koufax: 21 innings, nine hits, one run, 17 strikeouts.
JED JACOBSOHN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED