NEW YORK — Madison Bumgarner believes it’s important to stick to your routine when the postseason rolls around. So there he was Tuesday afternoon, running the warning track at Citi Field as he has in every ballpark this season. During BP, he stuck to what has worked, hitting a steady stream of homers to the second deck and letting an angry yelp fly when one swing resulted in a liner that didn’t clear the outfield grass.
Bumgarner even stuck to the script during his press conference. He enjoys tweaking reporters who ask lazy questions, and when one New York writer asked him to talk about the “most important thing to do” to “win this important game,” Bumgarner stirred.
“We have to find a way to score more runs than they do tomorrow,” he said. “And we’ll be all right if we do that.”
That task is a difficult one, even for a group that has won this game before and is riding high after a four-game winning streak that clinched a postseason spot. This is not 2014, when the Pirates burned Gerrit Cole and ended up throwing Edinson Volquez against Bumgarner. This matchup is dead even.
Noah Syndergaard finished third in the league in ERA (2.60), second in home run rate (0.54 per nine innings) and fourth in strikeout rate (10.6 per nine). Bumgarner’s profile had highlights in some different areas, but was just as dominant. He ranked second in innings (226 2/3), fourth in ERA (2.74), sixth in WHIP (1.02) and seventh in strikeout rate (9.97). To top it off, only two big league pitchers homered three times this season: Bumgarner and Syndergaard.
It is a matchup of two aces, one who has the best big-game reputation in the sport and another who has the biggest arm of any starter.
“It’s going to be a heavyweight fight, man,” center fielder Denard Span said. “We’re going to have to pack our lunch and they’re going to have to pack their lunch.”
As the two teams gathered for light on-field workouts Tuesday, both starters looked at ease and ready to lock in. Syndergaard faced the cameras with a headband holding in place his flowing hair. He said he is not nervous, but rather “anxious and just excited to get out there and compete.”
That excitement tends to manifest itself in one of the best fastballs in baseball history. During last year’s World Series run, Syndergaard’s heater averaged 98 mph and maxed out at 101. He hit 102 earlier this season and threw at least one pitch in triple digits in five of his last six starts. Per Baseball Savant, the Giants had just 14 hits on pitches 98 mph or above, with only eight of those coming from players expected in Wednesday’s lineup.
The Giants consider themselves a good fastball-hitting group, and Bruce Bochy expressed confidence in his lineup’s ability to hit premium velocity. But Syndergaard doesn’t stop there. His slider comes in at a devastating 95 mph, his changeup sits in the low 90s, and he mixes in a curve.
“He’s got an arsenal of weapons,” right fielder Hunter Pence said. “You can’t just go in and be like, oh, this guy throws hard, so I’m going to have to hit a fastball, because sometimes they don’t throw it for a strike. You’ve just got to get in there with a game plan and a preparation and understand that it’s timing. It’s having an approach and trusting that approach and trusting your teammates.”
The approach worked in May, when the Giants scored four off Syndergaard and knocked him out in the sixth. In August, they saw him at his best. Syndergaard gave up just two hits in eight innings of a win that helped vault the Mets to this point.
“I think he’s grown as a pitcher,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “I think he trusts his stuff a lot more now to where he pitches to more contact and he’s (not) worried about striking guys out.”
Bumgarner’s postseason history speaks for itself, but it’s not the only thing pointing to a huge night for the left-hander. In four career starts at City Field, Bumgarner is 4-0 with a 0.62 ERA (the lowest of any pitcher with 20-plus innings) and 0.83 WHIP. He has 31 strikeouts in New York to just nine walks.
“It’s just worked out that way for whatever reason,” Bumgarner said. “I’m certainly glad it has, but I don’t think there’s any good reason for it.”
Regardless, he has looked comfortable on the Mets’ field, and that can only help given the task ahead. The Giants hope to be playing baseball all month. If they are, they might not be part of another matchup as intriguing as the one between two hulking All-Star right-handers.
“It’s the best versus the best,” Pence said. “It’s two Goliaths going at it, two big guys, and that makes for some good drama, some good excitement. You know, that’s the fun of playoff baseball. Getting out there and competing against the best.”