Madison Bumgarner took the bump Saturday already knowing he’d be an All-Star. I’m sure he’s pleased, since it’s a career first for him. The honor put him among 29 other deserving first-time All-Stars headed for the Big Apple in a week instead of for an in-season staycation.
But first things first: A game that counts, really counts, in the way that players and teams count on themselves to deliver their own results. A game between the defending world champs and their mortal enemies. A game featuring baseball’s most remarkable new flavor yet -- Yasiel Puig -- no less. And for the third time this season, Bumgarner simply mowed down the Dodgers, even whiffing Puig three times on swinging third strikes to single-handedly hand the game’s latest most-exciting phenom his very own sombrero.
Folks might pay more attention to Tim Lincecum versus Clayton Kershaw matchups because of who Lincecum was and who Kershaw is, but you’d be better off getting worked up over Bumgarner against anybody, because the time has come when you wouldn’t want to bet against the Giants’ towering lefty, not if he was facing Kershaw, or the ’61 Yankees, or any team you’d toss together.
Having already overpowered the Dodgers on April 2 and June 24, whoever they have in the lineup, Bumgarner has been owning them. In 22 combined innings, he’s allowed just 11 Los Angeles baserunners and five runs while striking out 20. And because it’s Dodgers versus Giants in a parity-addled division in which all five teams are simultaneously fighting for first or last place, that has to be fairly sweet for Giants fans who’ve had to endure their share of frustrations this season. And to do it while showing up Puig in Saturday's 4-2 victory? Sweeter still, no doubt. With a whole lot of baseball to look forward to, this won't be the last chance Bumgarner has to put a dent in the Dodgers' future while creating his own.
That's because Bumgarner only seems to be getting better with age, and he's still ludicrously young. He's setting a career-best strikeout rate, whiffing almost a quarter of all hitters, and generating more swinging strikes than ever before. As quickly as folks both inside the media and out might seem to want to dive into the latest flavor in the Cult of the New, to skip ahead and get excited about the next big thing, Bumgarner is who you should be excited about if you want to be on board with the Cult of the Now. He deserves the excitement as much as any newly minted kid. Shelby Miller and Gerrit Cole just got here, and they’re just a year younger than Bumgarner, who’s 23 years old and already has wins in two different World Series. And for as long as it might seem that Bumgarner has been around already, this is just his third full season in the major leagues. As career beginnings go, that’s epic.
These days, Bumgarner is the Giants starter who doesn’t have to fret about turning back the clock to when San Francisco boasted the game’s best rotation, otherwise known as last season. While Lincecum is breaking down, Ryan Vogelsong is fully broken, Barry Zito is still the second-biggest bazillion-dollar boondoggle of the Naughty Aughties behind the mortgage crisis, and Matt Cain is proving able only sporadically, Bumgarner has been the one Giants starter who looks exactly like the guy who might make things right -- now.
As fans, you probably find yourself asking of any player on your team: What have you done for me lately? But as the honors and achievements keep piling up, what has Madison Bumgarner not done? Now that he’s an All-Star, you don’t have to ask for more. Instead, you should just settle in and enjoy what’s coming: postseason wins and hardware, because none of it should be out of his reach. And if it comes while he also builds up a Dodger-slayer rep, it shouldn’t just be Giants fans who enjoy the ride.
Handicapped as the Giants might be with an ill-chosen outfield or an overweight Pablo Sandoval, or even as the other four horsemen in their rotation fade from former glory, they still have Bumgarner to build around -- all the better to beat the former Bums of Brooklyn with. And with Giants right fielder Hunter Pence lined up against both Puig and Adrian Gonzalez in MLB’s Final Vote for the last slot on the National League’s All-Star team, Giants fans have at least one way to quickly avenge their disappointment with a ballclub bobbing around the NL West basement. Not that I wouldn’t rather see Puig, but even in easygoing California, some rivalries remain potent, perhaps even in something as minor as the right to make an All-Star Game cameo.
So this is a rivalry that will be fought out on many fields, not just on diamonds but also on your desktop, at least as far as the Final Vote is concerned. Whether they win or lose, the Dodgers are a story by the very fact of the expense it takes to employ them. But there’s no mere rooting for the club spending the most money; however craven, the Dodgers are understandably throwing money at a goal: to get where the Giants have already been after winning two titles in three seasons, to be what the Giants are, defending champs. To get there, they might well find Madison Bumgarner standing in the way.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.