In pitched battle, Bumgarner and Kershaw to take their cuts
Marquee mound matchup made extra special with aces batting against each other
SAN FRANCISCO -- For the fourth time, the game's elite lefties -- the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and the Giants' Madison Bumgarner -- are set to square off on Wednesday night at AT&T Park. As if this entree needed any extra spice, it's the first time a reigning league Most Valuable Player (Kershaw) has engaged a reigning World Series MVP (Bumgarner) on the mound.
The Dodgers and Giants, rivals forever, keep finding new ways to hold us captive.
This latest showdown makes a compelling argument in favor of the National League game, with pitchers taking their hacks. Kershaw and Bumgarner actually face each other. In the American League, this would be a figurative confrontation. Here, it's the real deal.
"He has the advantage," Kershaw said before Monday night's series opener, noting that Bumgarner swings from the right side. The Giants' ace faces a left-handed hitter when the Dodgers' No. 22 steps into the batter's box.
"He's a big guy -- enormous," Kershaw, not exactly diminutive at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, said of Bumgarner, who carries about 235 pounds on a 6-5 frame. "He's country strong, as they say."
In terms of raw power, in the view of Giants batting coach Hensley Meulens, Bumgarner is in a class with injured Hunter Pence among the Giants. Manager Bruce Bochy added Buster Posey and outfielder Justin Maxwell to the discussion.
Kershaw will put more than the usual emphasis on the opposing pitcher when he plots his game plan for the Giants. There's a reason why Bumgarner is only 1-for-7 against him with four strikeouts.
Bumgarner, huddling with Posey, also will take note of the threat posed by Kershaw, who is 3-for-5 against him.
If MadBum feels it's time to even the score, it's a sentiment he'll keep to himself. They've never socialized but the respect is mutual and runs deep.
"We just see each other on the field," Bumgarner said. "He's always getting his work in. You don't get to that level being lazy."
Bumgarner, a workhorse, is as old-school as it gets. Like Kershaw, he takes every facet of the game seriously.
"Maybe Hunter," Giants starter Tim Hudson said when asked whether the three-time World Series champs had anyone else with Bumgarner's power. "We don't have a lot of guys who swing like Madison, with that force. He's not up there to hit singles."
Bumgarner hit .258 last season, going deep four times with 15 RBIs and a .477 slugging percentage to claim the NL Silver Slugger Award.
This was how he used to hit at South Caldwell High School in Hudson, N.C., before the Giants took him with the 10th overall pick in 2007. But his slugging displays before last season had been pretty much confined to awe-inspiring batting practice shows. He had two homers and 16 RBIs in his first four seasons.
"I enjoy it," Bumgarner said. "We do anything we can to help ourselves out. There's no reason why we shouldn't put a little effort into it."
Kershaw looked surprised when he was asked about the nature of his three hits against Bumgarner.
"Really?" Kershaw said. "I recall one hit I had against him -- a ground ball between third base and shortstop. That's about it."
Neither Kershaw (1-1, 4.42 ERA in three starts) nor Bumgarner (1-1, 5.29) has warmed fully to the task yet, but both have about 30 starts left to get locked in and produce the brand of magic that has defined them.
The perfectionist in Kershaw apparently took hold after he had three hits in 55 at-bats, all singles, in 2010, batting .055. Since then he has hit .197 with a .474 OPS, sixth among all pitchers. He's 1-for-5, a double, this season.
Kershaw's first career home run was decisive in a shutout of the Giants on Opening Day in 2013. He has been a more confident and aggressive hitter since launching that blast at Dodger Stadium.
"I didn't know what I was doing," he said when asked about his home-run trot. "I really wasn't thinking -- or feeling my feet hit the bases."
Bumgarner was vague about his at-bats against the man who has led the Majors in ERA four consecutive seasons.
"I think they were all ground balls, all the hits we've gotten off each other," he said. "It isn't easy [facing Kershaw]. He might be the best pitcher of anybody in this era."
When his hitting ability initially was broached, MadBum humbly deferred.
"You're talking to a guy who doesn't have a hit this season," he said, having struck out three times in six at-bats.
Kershaw and Bumgarner dominated 2014 in historic fashion, and here they go again. A matching pair of distinguished artists in their prime, dealing on the same mound and facing each other -- the game doesn't get much better than this.