KANSAS CITY – The ball kept rising, buoyed by backspin, away and away from the center fielder in blue and white who has spent the past month catching anything within his reach.
This one was not. It cleared the wall in right-center field and descended just below a hand-lettered sign that read, “Hunter Pence thinks he’s in Kansas.”
The Kansas City Royals and their powder blue fans waited nearly three decades for the World Series to take a yellow-brick turn back to Kauffman Stadium. It finally arrived Tuesday night. And Pence, in the first inning of Game 1, dropped a house on their heads.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Bumgarner controls Game 1, Giants win 7-1]
Did he notice how quiet it got following his two-run home run, as he bird-legged it around the bases?
“No,” Pence replied. “It was really loud in my head.”
It is the same sweet cacophony that made Cliff Lee recoil in Game 1 five years ago. It is the same furious flurry that, the October before last, had Justin Verlander whirling around toward the outfield in horrified wonder. James Shields matches neither of those pitchers, either in talent or postseason accomplishments. But he was the Kansas City Royals’ best choice to begin this series, and he received the same brusque treatment.
In so many ways, the Giants’ 7-1 victory in Game 1 of the World Series offered a reflecting pool of Octobers past and present. There was Pablo Sandoval, taking a curveball he had no business putting in play and standing on second base anyway, applauding. There was Madison Bumgarner, his growth complete, proving he could lead a rotation with every bit of poise and polish that Matt Cain displayed in the recent past. There was Gregor Blanco, making a running catch in the first inning that almost any other center fielder – Angel Pagan included – would’ve had spikes in the air trying to reach.
And there was Bruce Bochy, pinch hitting for the player who, just five days earlier, hit the walk-off home run that handed them the pennant.
In the fourth inning. To get a bunt down.
“You try to put a little bit more pressure on them,” Bochy said.
The bag may not inflate, but oxygen is flowing. It always does for the Giants under Bochy in October. In his tenure on the bench, which coincides with Buster Posey’s tenure behind home plate, the Giants have met nine postseason foes and strode over each of them. The Royals could be the tenth, but for the first time, they had to win Game 1 of the World Series on the road. And now, after dealing Kansas City its first loss in this postseason, dare the Giants think it? If they can wrap up this series in five, as they did to the Texas Rangers, or in four, as they did to the Detroit Tigers, for the first time, they’d celebrate winning it all at home.
All caveats and warning beacons apply: there is too far to go, too much baseball to be played and the Royals are plenty relentless to make a series out of this. After one game, though, the Giants are inhaling the air of superiority. They did everything they set out to do in this Fall Classic opener: 1. Score early, with Pence’s home run and Sandoval’s RBI double spotting them a 3-0 lead in the first inning; 2. Control the Royals’ running attack, mostly by making them play from behind and keeping traffic off the bases; 3. Put a lock on that bullpen gate to prevent Kansas City from unleashing their three-headed bullpen gorgon of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland; and 4. Blind this downhill boulder of a team by flashing all of that shiny, multifaceted World Series experience.
All of those goals were easier said than done. All of those goals are so much easier when you have a legitimate No. 1 starter on the mound.
It took the 104th pitch of Bumgarner’s third World Series start, 21 2/3 innings deep, before he allowed his first run. With the Giants up seven runs in the seventh, Salvador Perez dropped a fence-scraping home run into the Royals bullpen.
The homer snapped the second longest World Series scoreless streak by a pitcher to begin his career in major league history. (Christy Mathewson tossed 28 zeroes in a row back when you needed a dirigible to get your feet off the ground.) The homer also ended Bumgarner’s streak at 32 2/3 scoreless postseason innings on the road, a major league record.
Prior to the game, Jake Peavy was in the interview room saying Bumgarner “has the makings of being a No. 1” and “That being said, I’m going to push Madison to start digging a little bit deeper and he will, and it’ll be scary if he gets any better than he already is.”
Bumgarner got scarier and scarier while tossing his Kansas City masterpiece Tuesday night. He came at the Royals with fastballs the first time through the lineup, relying on Blanco’s defense and his own quick reaction to Norichika Aoki’s line drive to avoid a puddle in the first inning. Then he switched to cutters, sliders and even a Carolina molasses 67 mph curve or two. When the Royals got their second look at Bumgarner, an advantage in theory, they were 0 for 8 with five strikeouts and a walk.
He held them to three hits in seven innings. In his three World Series starts, beginning on that Halloween Night in Texas when he was barely old enough to drink one beer, much less six at a time, Bumgarner has allowed just eight hits and a run in 22 innings over his three World Series starts, with five walks and 19 strikeouts.
Sure, Bumgarner knew he hadn’t allowed a run in the World Series before Perez went deep.
“I don’t care,” he said. “I’m not here trying to set records and keep streaks going and whatever. You do know about it. A World Series game is not something you exactly forget about. But tonight, that was the last thing on my mind.”
His mind was in overdrive in the third inning, after Bumgarner nearly knocked the bat out of Omar Infante’s hands but shortstop Brandon Crawford fumbled the weak ground ball for an error. Mike Moustakas, after waving through a 3-1 slider, roped a fastball into the right field corner for a double. The Royals had no outs, the tying run at the plate, and an engaged crowd.
“If you’re worried about how loud the crowd is going to be, then you’re in the wrong place mentally,” said Bumgarner, “and probably in the wrong business.”
Bumgarner did his finest work of the night. He got ahead 0-2 on each of the next three batters. It was neck-high heat to strike out Alcides Escobar, then after Aoki was late while fouling off two fastballs, Bumgarner threw him a curve. The bat turned into a serpent in Aoki’s hands.
Then, after Lorenzo Cain worked a tough walk, Bumgarner faced Eric Hosmer – the same hitter that Blanco robbed with his catch in the first inning. The hitter the Royals drafted with Posey still on the board.
“I had been throwing strikes early on, so I just had a gut feeling he was going to try to be aggressive,” Bumgarner said. “In the first at-bat, I threw him all fastballs. He hit the third pitch, but he did swing at the first pitch. So I just threw him a cutter. I knew he was going to be wanting to do some damage in that situation. That’s what you’ve got to do as a hitter. So I tried to make a good pitch and throw him a cutter, and he rolled it over for us.”
The thought process was sound. So was the pitch. And the result matched.
That is not always the case when the Giants are at the plate, especially Pence and Sandoval. They don’t have heat maps. They have high-pressure systems.
“Both guys … I don’t think – I can’t say those pitches Shields threw were mistakes,” Royals manager Ned Yost sad.
Sandoval did not homer three times, as he did in Game 1 two years ago, but his RBI double on a shin-high curveball scored the Giants’ first run. Third base coach Tim Flannery, perhaps sick of hearing about the Royals’ aggressiveness on the bases, might have tried to set a tone by sending Posey from first base on Sandoval’s double. A strong relay arrived in plenty of time to negate the gamble. The Giants were on the verge of minimizing an inning and getting just one run.
Then Pence had a 3-2 count.
“I had a good feeling,” Sandoval said with a laugh. “I don’t see him walk too many times. So I knew Hunter was going to swing at that pitch. He works so hard to be in that situation.”
When Sandoval is making fun of your free-swinging tendencies, you know you have a reputation to uphold. Pence swung hard, as he always does, and he caught Shields’ high fastball on the barrel. The backspin did the rest. It was his most important hit as a Giant, or at least the biggest since his double in Game 7 of the 2012 NLCS.
That time, he made contact three times in one swing. This time, a sole connection was enough.
“I say this, and I truly mean it, sometimes in my mind when I’m playing the game or our team is doing something good, it’s like an emptiness,” Pence said. “I don’t know what’s going on around me.”
The raucous energy was all around him from the moment he descended into the dugout.
“Gosh, man … it couldn’t happen to a better guy,” Michael Morse said. “This is the World Series and he did what he does best. He doesn’t get cheated on any single pitch. That’s beautiful, man.
“It doesn’t have to be in the strike zone. It can be any pitch. Pablo took that curveball down and in and got a double out of it. Hunter, he’s getting his whole body into that swing. That’s what makes these guys such threats. I was like, ‘Oh boy.’ These guys make it look so easy. I’m thinking, ‘It can’t be this easy.’ It just shows you how professional they are. These guys have ice cold blood in games like these. For a guy like me, here for the first time, you feed off that. It just makes you want to be better, to be a part of what they’re doing.”
Morse hit an RBI single in the fourth inning. Blanco got on base three times, including a bases-loaded walk, and scored twice. Joe Panik, in a left-on-left matchup, drove in a run on an 0-2 curveball that Aoki misplayed – yes, a defensive letdown in the outfield is more than a theoretical construct for the Royals – into a triple. Hunter Strickland even cleansed his sins by pitching the ninth and retiring Hosmer, a lefty batter.
And when it was over, the Giants had a thought occur to them. For the first time they could remember, in the moments before they took the field, there was no great and powerful Hunter Pence speech.
“I don’t think we got one today,” Brandon Belt said. “I don’t think we needed it.”