Madison Bumgarner gets everything but “Buster Hug” in dominant win

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SAN FRANCISCO – It all said so much about Madison Bumgarner.

His fastball was pure backwoods camouflage, jumping like a rabbit, kicking like a buck and swooping like a red-tailed hawk.

His jaw and his brow were locked tight as bowstrings as he fired 24 first-pitch strikes to 28 batters, set traps with an astounding 15 0-2 counts and threw ball three just once all night.

He stepped on one twig, when Justin Morneau hit a two-strike curveball into the right field corner to start the eighth inning. But Bumgarner’s night wasn’t defined by the buildup to a perfect game, or by The One That Got Away.

It was what happened immediately after the Giants’ broad-shouldered, soft-eyed left-hander rubbed up a new baseball as Morneau stood on second base. After sellout crowd sighed and showered him with appreciation, and Bumgarner turned ornery.

The next three batters: 11 pitches, 11 strikes, six of them swinging, and three strikeouts.

Kill shot.

[RECAP: Bumgarner’s perfect game broken up in eighth]

“Really,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy following Bumgarner’s one-hit, career-high tying 13-strikeout performance the 3-0 victory over the Colorado Rockies Tuesday night, “that game was probably more impressive than a lot of no-hitters.”

It was what the Giants needed after the previous night, when they were a poor reflection of a contending team in a disheveled loss to a depleted Rockies club that had dropped 23 of 26 road games since sweeping three here in mid-June.

Bumgarner had a 5.17 ERA at AT&T Park and nobody could understand it. Buster Posey was hitting .239 with an out-of-character .278 on-base percentage at AT&T Park and nobody could understand it. The Giants had lost their edge at home for more than two months and … well, maybe the shortcomings of their best all-around pitcher and hitter might explain some of it, right?

But this time, Bumgarner took charge and Posey provided all the offense with a pair of home runs. The two-run shot came in the sixth inning. The solo shot followed in the eighth.

It was a relief, Posey acknowledged, “because at that point you could sense he had an opportunity, the way he was throwing. It definitely would’ve been stressful if we didn’t have any runs on the board in the ninth.”

But a two-strike curveball to Morneau didn’t splash in the dirt, and his NL-best .317 average isn’t entirely a product of Coors Field. Certainly, perfect games have been lost on worse pitches.

“It was not a bad pitch, really,” Posey said. “Just a good piece of hitting.

“When he’s throwing the ball like that, it makes my job pretty easy. … The most impressive to me was the fact he gave up the hit and struck out the next three batters. That shows the kind of poise he has.”

Said Bochy: “The one thing you know you’ll get from Madison is great concentration. You may beat him but it’s not for a lack of effort or focus.”

Want to know something else about Bumgarner? When he batted in the seventh inning, just six outs away from perfection, he did not leave the bat on his shoulder. He took one of his lumberjack cuts and rocketed a lineout to deep right field.

Most pitchers would have stood there in the box, not wanting to disrupt any particles.

“Hmmmmmmm,” said Bumgarner. “I can’t really … no. I wouldn’t do that.”

Bumgarner took nothing for granted after Morneau’s double. Remember, the Giants’ free-fall began in June when they led the Rockies in the eighth inning or later three times, and lost all three games.

This time, it would not slip away. Bumgarner retired the final six batters to record his sixth career complete game and his second shutout. It also was his second one-hitter. This was the deepest he has taken any kind of no-hit or perfect-game bid in his career. You have to believe he’ll take one deeper still.

Does he pine for the day when the clubhouse serenades him, as they did for Tim Lincecum this year and last, and Matt Cain in 2012?

“I mean, it would be … it’d be great,” said Bumgarner, who threw 80 of 103 pitches for strikes. “It’d be cool to do. It’s a cool individual accomplishment. But that’s not important to me. It’s definitely amazing but when it comes down to it, we’re trying to win games. That’s it. It’s about your teammates and winning championships.”

Here is what he did accomplish, though:

–He reached double-digit strikeouts for the 19th time in his career, putting him behind only Lincecum, Jason Schmidt and Juan Marichal in Giants history. Even Gaylord Perry did it just 15 times. Bumgarner just turned 25 years old, by the way.

–His six games of 10-plus strikeouts and zero walks are the most in Giants franchise history.

–He is 15-9 and tied for the major league lead in victories. With seven starts remaining, he retains a shot at becoming the Giants’ first 20-game winner since Bill Swift and John Burkett in 1993.

–He became the first Giant to throw four complete games in a season since Cain in 2010. Maybe, one of these days soon, he’ll join the ranks of Cy Young Award winners, too.

Posey remains the face of the franchise, but can there be any doubt that Bumgarner is the thick legs and torso?

Without him, the Giants rotation would be nothing but cracks and fissures and age spots. Lincecum is banished to the bullpen for the first time in his career, Cain is hoping to bounce back from elbow surgery next spring, Tim Hudson will turn 40 next summer, 30-somethings Jake Peavy and Ryan Vogelsong are impending free agents and the minor league system is as well stocked with arms as a Opa-Locka convenience store with a tropical storm on its doorstep.

They have been through the storms this season, slid back to the pack in a flash-flood of losses. Bumgarner did not get the perfect game Tuesday night, or the no-hitter or the ice bucket or the cup of champagne.

But he did give the Giants a little backbone, and maybe that’s what some of them needed.

Even if the night didn’t end with a full-fledged Buster Hug.

“Aw,” said Posey, “I don’t know if I could’ve picked him up anyway.”

The Phillies are trying out prospect J.P. Crawford at third base

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On Sunday, for the first time in his professional career, Phillies shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford started at third base. He picked up three hits in five at-bats, continuing his torrid pace. Since the start of July, he’s hitting .306/.397/.595 with 11 home runs, 28 RBI, 33 runs scored, and a 37/25 K/BB ratio in 199 plate appearances.

With September looming, the Phillies may be considering a promotion for Crawford. Shortstop, however, is currently taken by Freddy Galvis who has appeared in every game this season and has taken on a leadership role with the team. Meanwhile, third baseman Maikel Franco has been mired in a season-long slump as he’s carrying a devilish .666 OPS.

The Phillies haven’t been averse to trying their prospects out at new positions. Prior to his recent promotion, Rhys Hoskins had played only first base throughout his professional career, but the Phillies moved him to left field for a few games, then called him up to the majors. Hoskins has made nine starts in the outfield and two at first base in the majors thus far.

As MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki notes, the Phillies are also considering trying out second base prospect Scott Kingery at shortstop or third base before the end of the minor league season.

These aren’t long-term plans; it’s just a way for the Phillies to find meaningful playing time for their prospects and giving manager Pete Mackanin potential flexibility. Assistant GM Ned Rice said, “It benefits the player and benefits the team when more guys are able to play multiple positions. It just gives Pete [Mackanin] a lot more options at the big league level. The more guys we can bring up who have been exposed to different positions, the better.”

Players having great seasons under the radar

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Yesterday, I watched a myriad of defensive highlights from Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons (who also homered). Curious, I looked up his stats and found him among the leaders in Wins Above Replacement. And then I found a handful of other players having great seasons and realized I’ve hardly heard anything about them. Let this be my contribution towards raising them into the spotlight.

Andrelton Simmons (Angels): The 27-year-old is having the best offensive season of his career. He posted a .751 OPS in his rookie season, but that spanned only 49 games. From 2013-16, he had an aggregate .664 OPS. His defense never wavered, of course, which is why he kept getting regular playing time and why the Angels were eager to trade for him in November 2015. This season, however, he’s been a terrific hitter, batting .292/.345/.451 with 13 home runs, 57 RBI, 62 runs scored, and 17 stolen bases in 502 plate appearances. He’s four home runs away from matching a career-high. Simmons is 11th in baseball in FanGraphs’ version of WAR, heavily predicated on the valuation of his defense, but it’s not too outlandish for me to believe Simmons has added nearly two wins above replacement on defense alone. While Jose Altuve, Aaron Judge, and Mike Trout will fight for the lion’s share of AL MVP votes, Simmons could get some down ballot consideration.

Gio Gonzalez (Nationals): Gonzalez nearly threw a no-hitter earlier this season against the Marlins, which brought some eyeballs to his stat line. Still, he hasn’t been talked about much somehow. He’s 12-5 with a 2.39 ERA and a  150/62 K/BB ratio in 162 innings. It’s nothing new for Gonzalez, as he won 21 games with a 2.89 ERA en route to finishing third in Cy Young balloting in 2012. There’s also some reason to believe Gonzalez’s performance is in some part due to great fortune as his batting average on balls in play is about 50 points below league average and his rate of stranding runners on base is more than 11 percent higher than his career average. Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer have had better seasons and will be the first and second place finishers in this year’s balloting, but Gonzalez is looking at likely finishing third again, which is no small feat.

Aaron Nola (Phillies): After a dismal June 16 start against the Diamondbacks, Nola stood with a disappointing 4.76 ERA. After the first two innings of last Thursday’s start against the Giants, he briefly brought it under 3.00. Currently, it’s at 3.26 along with a 128/38 K/BB ratio in 124 1/3 innings. Since that June 16 start, he’s made 11 starts with a composite 2.21 ERA across 73 1/3 innings. The right-hander out of LSU showed promise in his rookie year in 2015, then struggled last year before succumbing to injury. Finally, it’s appearing that Nola is showing the promise the Phillies believed in when they took him in the first round (seventh overall) in the 2014 draft. Perhaps more importantly, he looks like a pitcher the Phillies can build around. If there’s one thing the Phillies have lacked since trading Cole Hamels, it’s a starter capable of throwing seven or eight innings and holding the opposition to one or two runs.

Chris Taylor (Dodgers): On a team that features Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Alex Wood, and recently added Yu Darvish, it’s understandable that Taylor would slip under the radar. He’s played five different positions this season — left field, second base, center field, third base, and shortstop — while batting .311/.383/.549 with 17 home runs, 58 RBI, 69 runs scored, and 14 stolen bases in 413 plate appearances. He’s played average to above-average defense at most of those positions, which is why his 4.6 fWAR ranks 13th in baseball and 10th in the National League. Before the Dodgers acquired him from the Mariners last June in a very little talked about trade, Taylor had been a weak-hitting utilityman. Now, he’s the starting center fielder for baseball’s best team.

Felipe Rivero (Pirates): The Pirates acquired Rivero from the Nationals last year in the Mark Melancon trade. It worked out well for the Buccos. Though the club sits at a disappointing 60-64 in fourth place in the NL Central, Rivero has been a bright spot, owning a major league best 1.31 ERA with 14 saves and a 73/16 K/BB ratio in 61 2/3 innings. The lefty took over the closer’s role when Tony Watson began to struggle in the first half. While Rivero has been terrific against right-handed hitters, limiting them to a .547 OPS, he’s been death to lefties (.227 OPS). After the season, Rivero will be eligible for arbitration for the first of four years, so it wouldn’t be shocking if he got traded at some point, but for now, they’ll enjoy his outstanding 2017 campaign.