They call him Kung Fu Panda. Now they can call him a World Series legend.
Pablo Sandoval, a batter who rarely sees a pitch he doesn’t like, found three pitches he loved in the World Series opener and entered his name alongside three of the biggest names in the history of the game.
Ruth. Reggie. Pujols. Pablo. The only four players to hit three home runs in a World Series game.
Here’s the thing: The first three guys didn’t hit two homers off the reigning best pitcher in the world. The San Francisco Giants beat Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers 8-3 but the score was secondary to one of the great individual performances in World Series history (Sandoval would later add a line-drive single to finish 4-for-4). His trip into the record books:
Home run No. 1: An 0-2 95-mph fastball that Verlander tried to elevate but Sandoval jacked to dead center, a 421-foot rocket of a line drive with two out in the first. It wasn’t necessarily a bad pitch -- eye level -- but Sandoval has the hand-eye coordination to extend the strike zone like few batters. In that regard, he’s similar to two great World Series performers of the past, Yogi Berra and Kirby Puckett, notorious bad-ball hitters. And at least in Puckett’s case, even the similar stocky build.
How unlikely was the home run? Not surprisingly, Verlander hadn’t served up an 0-2 home run all season and only four in his career.
Home run No. 2: After Angel Pagan had doubled off the third-base bag with two out in the third and scored on Marco Scutaro’s sharp single up the middle, Verlander threw Sandoval two changeups in the dirt, prompting a quick visit from pitching coach Jeff Jones. The next pitch was a 95-mph fastball on the outside corner that Sandoval drove to left field, just clearing the fence for a two-run homer. Again, not a terrible pitch, just a terrific swing. Of Sandoval’s 12 regular-season home runs, just two went to left field or left-center, but he hit nine in that direction in 2011, so he has legit opposite-field power.
Home run No. 3: Now facing reliever Al Alburquerque in the fifth, Sandoval golfed a 1-1 slider that was barely off the ground into a long, beautiful arc over the center-field fence, sending Giants fans into a communal roar of joy. Is there a better sound than a ballpark erupting?
The amazing thing: None of the three pitches was grooved. Two were outside the strike zone. It was simply three swings for the ages for Kung Fu Panda.
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It’s easy to say after the fact that Verlander didn’t have it, but the first two batters of the game were an indication this would be tougher going than when he faced the Oakland A’s and New York Yankees. Verlander required six pitches to retire Pagan, who fouled off three fastballs before finally grounding out on a curve. Scutaro grounded out on a 2-1 slider, laying off a tough 1-1 curveball.
The Giants have a completely different approach than the two teams Verlander faced in the American League playoffs. The A’s are a swing-from-the-heels team that set a league record for strikeouts. The Yankees clearly were in midst of a team-wide offensive meltdown. But the Giants play in a tough home run park -- fewer home runs were hit at AT&T this season than any other park -- and play a style that suits their home stadium. Only the Phillies struck out fewer times in the National League, as the Giants work the count, put the ball in play and make the opposing defense make plays.
As dominant as Verlander was in his three previous playoff starts, and even though he was working with plenty of rest, it’s worth noting he was worked hard down the stretch. He has had 12 games of 120-plus pitches this year, including the postseason, and six of those came on Aug. 28 or later. His three starts against the A’s and Yankees featured pitch counts of 121, 122 and 132.
I’m not saying that’s the reason he struggled; give credit to the Giants for a lot of quality at-bats. Pagan and Scutaro are locked in right now and the Tigers will have to figure out a way to keep those two off the bases. Maybe Verlander was also too amped-up, as he was in the All-Star Game. In fact, only twice in the past two years has Verlander failed to pitch at least five innings (other than the rain-delayed playoff game against the Yankees a year ago): Game 1 of the 2012 World Series and Game 1 of the 2011 American League Championship Series. Questions about his ability to stay focused and in the right frame of mind will be there out until his next start.
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Defense could still play a major factor in this series. Pagan’s double off the bag wasn’t Miguel Cabrera’s fault, although even if he fields that ball I’m not sure he throws out Pagan. Delmon Young was playing left field pretty much over in Oakland, even for weaker hitters such as Gregor Blanco, which made no sense. It didn’t really come into play in this game, although he may have had a chance to throw out Brandon Belt at home plate on Barry Zito’s RBI single in the fourth. Instead, he chunked one of the worst throws you’ll ever see. With Madison Bumgarner starting Game 2, I'm sure we'll see Young out there again. Beware, Tigers fans, beware. Meanwhile, Blanco made two diving catches in left field, an example of the Giants' edge at several positions.
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Finally, Zito did what he had to do. Bruce Bochy got him out of the game as soon as he got into trouble in the sixth, with Tim Lincecum again looking like a guy who can be a big weapon out of the bullpen. The winners of Game 1 have won eight of the past nine World Series and 13 of 15. But as Wednesday night showed, those are just numbers. We have no idea what is going to happen.