Commentary

Kung Fu Panda packs punch

Pablo Sandoval's historic three-homer night fueled a Giants Game 1 win

Updated: October 29, 2012, 5:21 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- He strolled to the plate in the seventh inning of a World Series game for the history books, taking in the scene around him.

There were 42,855 people hanging on the moment -- every one of them on their feet, their orange rally rags spinning in the night. They knew they were witnessing something special. If only they'd known how special.

It had been 86 years since any crowd in any stadium had seen anything like this -- a man heading for the batter's box, with a chance to hit four home runs in one World Series game.

The last man -- the only other man -- to find himself in that surreal position was a gentleman named Babe Ruth, facing Wild Bill Hallahan, in Game 4 of the 1926 Series.

[+] EnlargePablo Sandoval
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesSandoval set the tone for the night with a laser over the center-field wall in the first inning.

And now it was Pablo Sandoval's turn.

We regret to report he never did hit that fourth home run. But that's OK. The San Francisco Giants probably won't fine him or anything. On this magical Wednesday night in October, they got much, much more than just their money's worth from the man they call "Panda."

They got the kind of baseball game people write poetry about.

The story of Game 1 of the 2012 World Series was supposed to be Justin Verlander, the most dominating starting pitcher of his time. But the third baseman for the Giants apparently had a different story in mind.

He sent three titanic home runs rocketing through the October sky. And when he was through, the Giants didn't merely have an 8-3 Game 1 victory over the Detroit Tigers on their hands.

They had an indelible night in World Series history on their hands.

"Man, I still can't believe it," Sandoval said, the aftershocks of his Richter Scale evening were still rocking AT&T Park after the game. "When you're a little kid, you dream of being in the World Series. But I [wasn't] thinking of being in this situation, three homers in one game."

Let's just say he wasn't the only one who didn't see this game coming.

Allow us to put what happened here in its rightful historical perspective:

• This was the 625th World Series game in history. Only three other men have ever done what Sandoval did Wednesday. You may have heard of them. There was George H. (Bambino) Ruth in both 1926 and 1928. There was Reginald M. Jackson in 1977. And there was Sir Albert Pujols, just one October ago. And that's all, folks.

• But what separated Sandoval from those other legends was this: He was the first man ever to launch his three home runs in his first three plate appearances of a World Series game. Only Ruth came close -- homering in his first three official at-bats of that 1926 trifecta but sneaking in a walk between the second and third homers.

• Now, let's add in a little extra degree of difficulty, by considering the ballpark Sandoval hit these three home runs in. There have been 2,108 regular-season games played in AT&T Park and 51 postseason games. And only one other time, in those 2,159 games, has any other player hit three homers in a game in this park. That would be Kevin Elster, who did it in the first game ever played there, on April 11, 2000. You read that right: Kevin Elster.

• There's also Venezuelan baseball history to consider. In one game, Sandoval hit as many World Series home runs as all the other major league players from his homeland had ever hit in all their Fall Classic visits put together. The previous three came off the bats of Dave Concepcion (1975), Miguel Cabrera (2003) and Alex Gonzalez (2003).

• And finally, let's factor in this game's place in Giants World Series history. This is the 19th time this franchise has played in a World Series, more than any franchise in this sport that isn't known as "the Yankees." And just in the first five innings of this game, Pablo Sandoval hit one more World Series homer than Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Will Clark, Jack Clark, Matt Williams, Jeffrey Leonard, Johnny Mize and Bobby "The Giants Win the Pennant" Thomson hit in all their various World Series combined.

Oh. And we haven't even mentioned yet that the Panda hit the first of those two home runs off Verlander, a guy who had allowed two homers to the previous 137 hitters he'd faced -- going back exactly a month -- until Sandoval showed up at home plate.

[+] EnlargeReggie Jackson
AP PhotoReggie Jackson made himself a postseason legend by hitting three jacks in one World Series game.

And then, naturally, Pablo Sandoval did something no one had ever done against Verlander in 243 career starts (counting the postseason): Hit two home runs against him just in the first three innings. Sure. Of course he did.

In other words, ladies and gentlemen, this was special.

"It was special, really special," said Gregor Blanco, the man who occupies the locker next to Sandoval's. "Nobody could believe what he'd done -- even himself. He was saying to us, 'I feel like I'm dreaming right now.'"

And why wouldn't he? Two years ago, when the Giants were busy winning a World Series for the first time in more than half a century in San Francisco, Pablo Sandoval was as close to an afterthought as a 5-foot-11, 275-pound fireball can be.

He appeared in fewer games in that World Series than Nate Schierholtz. And got fewer plate appearances than Travis Ishikawa. And got fewer hits than Matt Cain. He never started at third base in a single game in that World Series -- DHing in his only appearance in the lineup, in Game 3, and going hitless in three trips.

But it's amazing the lessons a man can learn when he eats himself out of the lineup while his team is winning a World Series. And Sandoval learned his lessons well.

"He got humbled by 2010," said his hitting coach, Hensley (Bam Bam) Meulens. "He didn't play. He didn't play in the four most important games of that year: He didn't play when we clinched the division. He didn't play in the game where we beat the Braves [to win the National League Division Series]. He didn't play in the [final game of the championship series] in Philly. And he didn't play the last game, when we won the World Series. So he said, 'That's not going to happen to me next time around.'"

[+] EnlargePablo Sandoval
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsGiants pitchers also gave Sandoval plenty of reason to celebrate.

The Sandoval of 2010 was a man who had lost his way at the plate, jumping at the baseball "with his hands dragging behind him," Meulens said. But the Sandoval who made history on this enchanted evening, two Octobers later, was a guy whose body was calm, whose swing was short and whose ability to pound balls all over the strike zone made this astonishing night possible.

So, his first time up, he saw an 0-and-2, 95-mph Verlander scorch-ball heading his way, letter-high, and somehow drove it 421 feet to deep right-center, into the first row of seats.

The last first-inning home run hit by a Giant in a World Series game was hit by Mel Ott, 79 years ago. And how many home runs do you think Verlander had given up all year on 0-2 pitches before that? Not a one, of course.

Then, two innings later, the Panda went down and got a vintage pitcher's pitch, driving a low-and-away 95-mph heater the other way, into the left-field seats. Verlander turned and mouthed a word that said it all: "Wow." But he wasn't the only one.

"Anybody who goes 'oppo' in this park," said Sandoval's teammate, Brandon Crawford, "is going to get a 'wow' from somebody. That's tough to do."

So there couldn't possibly be more after that. Could there? Oh yes, there could. Two innings later, Sandoval golfed an Al Alburquerque slider back, back, back, back, back -- and right into the history books.

When it disappeared into the empty spaces beyond the center-field fence, 435 feet from home plate, Sandoval kissed his hand, pointed it toward the galaxy above and circled the bases in a state of pure jubilation, as 42,855 witnesses shared the kind of mass euphoria that only great sporting moments like this one can deliver.

"It gave me chills," Blanco said. "But it also gave me frustration. I was thinking, 'I can't even hit a single. And he hit three home runs.' "

And Pablo Sandoval did that it, friends, in a World Series game.

A World Series game started by Justin Verlander.

[+] EnlargePablo Sandoval
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesSandoval "only" singled in his fourth at-bat, to complete a 4-for-4 night.

And a World Series game played in AT & T Park -- a place where it's so tough to hit a home run that only three men on this entire roster (Sandoval, Buster Posey and Brandon Belt) hit three homers (or more) there all season.

But Pablo Sandoval actually made it to home plate, in the seventh inning, with a chance to hit four in one game. Wow.

Every one of his teammates climbed to the top step of the dugout: "I don't think there was anyone who wasn't watching that AB," Jeremy Affeldt said. "We could have been watching history."

As Sandoval smoothed the dirt in front of the plate, tapped his helmet and wriggled into the box, not a seat in his ballpark was occupied -- because every single former occupant of those seats was standing, flapping their towels in the breeze, creating their own personal thunder claps.

But Pablo Sandoval was the most calm human in the park. He knew what he had to do -- and hitting a home run wasn't it.

"I don't try to get excited," he said, "because when you get excited, that's when you get in trouble."

So on the second pitch he saw from deposed Tigers closer Jose Valverde, Sandoval "only" roped a line drive to left-center field for his fourth hit of the night. It may not have been his fourth home run of this spectacular evening. But it did make him just the second man in the past 84 World Series to 4-for-4 in a Series opener. The other was Hall of Famer Lou Brock, in 1967. Not bad.

He got one last standing ovation for that hit, and a special place in World Series folklore. But he was about to find out that no matter what you do in this life, you just can't please everybody.

When he returned to the dugout after the inning, he found his friend, Marco Scutaro waiting for him.

"I told him, 'C'mon, man. Anybody can hit three,'" Scutaro laughed. "Let's go."

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com