During the 2015 MLB playoffs, Madison Bumgarner made the transition from top-tier pitcher to baseball legend with one of the greatest postseason performances of all-time.
The San Francisco Giants ace entered the playoffs with a 2.98 ERA and a career-high 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings. With such a strong regular season showing, combined with the fact that Bumgarner was coming off his third consecutive All-Star Game appearance, the table was set for him to make a splash in October. However, few could've expected the elite display he would put on once the postseason rolled around.
Bumgarner kicked off the postseason by shutting down the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Wild Card Game, striking out 10 batters and allowing just four hits during a complete game shutout. He took a minor step back, picking up a loss and allowing two earned runs against the Washington Nationals in the National League Division Series, but would bounce back in a big way.
Bumgarner picked up NLCS MVP honors in the following series, sending the Giants to the Fall Classic and setting the stage for one of the greatest World Series pitching performances in MLB history. He picked up two wins, a save and allowed just one run in 21 innings pitched. The ace finished the series with 15 consecutive shutout innings, including the final five frames of the decisive Game 7. Capping off his historic performance, Bumgarner was fittingly named World Series MVP.
One year later, two pitchers have the potential to enter this rare territory: Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs, and Dallas Keuchel of the Houston Astros.
Both pitchers find themselves at the forefront of the Cy Young Award discussion in 2015.
After a somewhat pedestrian start to the season, Arrieta delivered the most dominant second-half for a pitcher in baseball history. He finished the season winning 16 of 17 decisions after a 6-5 start, and his 0.75 ERA after the All-Star break was an MLB record. Meanwhile, Keuchel posted a 2.48 ERA and led American League pitchers with 20 wins, 1.02 walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP) and 7.2 wins above replacement (WAR).
Both have already added impressive Wild Card Game performances to their credit this year.
Arrieta delivered the Cubs their first playoff victory since the infamous 2003 National League Championship Series, tossing a four-hit, complete-game shutout and striking out 11 batters in the process. As for Keuchel, he pitched on just three days rest for Houston, and only lasted six innings. However, he struck out seven batters and gave up zero runs on three hits in those six innings of work, effectively sending the Astros to the American League Division Series.
Even more crucial to this discussion is the tremendous impact that each player will have on his team's respective postseason chances.
The Astros and Cubs both boast talent-laden rosters filled with young players that can generate an offensive explosion at any given moment. Yet when it comes to selecting a player that can take over a game on his own, Arrieta and Keuchel are the only true candidates for either club.
Perhaps it is unfair to Arrieta and Keuchel to draw comparisons to Bumgarner's legendary postseason performance this early in the playoffs. Neither had appeared in a postseason game before last week, as opposed to Bumgarner who already held two World Series titles under his belt entering 2014.
But given their regular season dominance an undoubted status as the MVPs of their respective teams, the potential is certainly there.