With 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander on the mound and experts across the land picking his Detroit Tigers to win the World Series, the San Francisco Giants found themselves with some statement-making to do in Game 1 of the World Series.
The Giants? Statement-making? That sounds familiar. I suppose the only real question was which Giant would be the one to deliver the statement.
Pablo Sandoval ended up being the courier. And I must say, he couriered the hell out of the statement the Giants had prepared.
The one they call "Kung Fu Panda" launched not one, not two, but three home runs at AT&T Park on Wednesday night to lead the Giants to a resounding 8-3 victory against Verlander and Tigers, who didn't look quite as invincible as they did in the ALCS against the New York Yankees.
Elsewhere in Game 1, Barry Zito was tremendous once again, allowing only one earned run in 5.2 innings before Bruce Bochy made the decision to lift him in favor of Tim Lincecum. That decision panned out quite well, as Lincecum ended up giving the Giants 2.1 hitless innings with five strikeouts.
Zito has now won each of his last two starts in this postseason, and in convincing fashion to boot. He's certainly winning over all those fans who said...
Oh heck, you get the point. Let's get back to the Panda. As great as Zito, Lincecum and the rest of the Giants were, Sandoval was the one who gave the 42,855 fans packed into AT&T Park their money's worth.
Three home runs in a World Series game is something we've seen before, mind you. Albert Pujols did it just last year, and before him it was a feat accomplished by two other all-time greats: Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson (h/t ESPN Stats & Info).
And now Pablo Sandoval is in their company. Because, why the heck not?
Sandoval's feat is rare enough, but the rarity of his three-homer game doesn't quite do the significance of it proper justice. There's more to it than the elite company he joined.
For one, ESPN's Buster Olney pointed out that Sandoval did something that had never been done before:
Pablo Sandoval is the first player in MLB history to hit home runs in his first three plate appearances of a World Series game.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) October 25, 2012
Also worth noting: Sandoval came to the plate only three times in all of the 2010 World Series. Suffice it to say, he did more in his first three at-bats in this World Series than he did with his first (and only) three at-bats in the 2010 Series.
For two, Sandoval did something that had only ever been done once before at AT&T Park. As Andrew Baggarly of CSNBayArea.com pointed out:
This is only the second three-homer game in AT&T Park HISTORY. Kevin Elster homered 3 times in the first ever game at this ballpark in 2000.— Andrew Baggarly (@CSNBaggs) October 25, 2012
And, of course, we would all be remiss if we didn't recognize the fact that two of Sandoval's homers in Game 1 came against the best freakin' pitcher in baseball. Only Desmond Jennings managed to homer twice off Verlander in 2012. And if my research is correct, he didn't do so in the World freakin' Series.
You may be getting the point, but the sheer historical significance of Sandoval's three-homer outburst is only about half the story. What Sandoval's performance in Game 1 made clear is that, yes, the Giants can indeed score runs in ways that don't involve massive amounts of luck.
Some very weird things happened in the final three games of the Giants' comeback against the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS, and pretty much all of them went in favor of the Giants. They used infield bleeders and the like to score four unearned runs in support of Zito in Game 5, and three unearned runs in support of Ryan Vogelsong in Game 6. In Game 7, Hunter Pence scored three runs with a broken-bat hit and the Giants also got a couple runs on fielders' choice ground balls.
The Giants outscored the Cardinals 20-1 in the final three games of the series, and over half of those runs came courtesy of plays that could have just as easily resulted in nothing at all.
Hey, that's just how the cookie was crumbling for the Giants in those last three games. That silence you heard was them and all the members of their considerable fanbase not complaining.
Nevertheless, the question many people had was whether the Giants' good luck would hold in the Fall Classic. Against the Tigers and their star-studded starting pitching staff, they were surely going to need it.
Except not. The Giants did get one lucky bounce on Angel Pagan's ground ball down the third-base line in the third inning that resulted in a double after it clanked off the bag, but beyond that their offense was generated mainly by hard-hit balls that came from up and down Bruce Bochy's lineup.
Obviously, most of the hard-hit balls came directly off of Sandoval's bat. In addition to the three homers, his fourth hit of the night was a laser of a single in the seventh. If I'm the Tigers, I'm telling myself that the Giants only score four runs on seven hits if Sandoval's outburst is taken out of the equation, and that's not so bad.
While I'm at it, I'm telling myself that there's no way he's going to do what he did again in this series.
But I—and this is the actual me speaking again—wouldn't be so sure. Sandoval's free-swinging ways can lead to cold streaks, but he can stay hot for a while when he's seeing the ball well and actually producing some hard contact.
For example, Sandoval punished the Washington Nationals back in early July by going 6-for-11 with two doubles and a homer in a three-game series. Back in September, he enjoyed a four-game stretch in which he went 10-for-16 with four HRs.
Sandoval is in the middle of one of these hot streaks right now. He came into the World Series on an 8-for-21 stretch in the NLCS. Factor in his Game 1 outburst, and Sandoval has 12 hits in his last 25 at-bats. Of those 12 hits, five have left the park.
So as much as Marco Scutaro deserved the attention he got in the NLCS, Sandoval has also been a prime mover in San Francisco's offense in recent days. If he keeps it up, the Giants won't be so overmatched against Detroit's pitching staff after all.
In fact, the way things are going right now, this series could be over pretty quickly. Sandoval's epic Game 1 only added to the swagger the Giants were already playing with, so it's suddenly not all that hard to imagine them wrapping up their second World Series in the last three years with a nice, clean sweep.
It's not such a crazy notion. Before the Giants, the last two teams to pull off 3-1 comebacks in the LCS round were the 2004 Red Sox and the '07 Red Sox, and they used their momentum to score sweeps in the World Series both times. When they swept the Colorado Rockies in the 2007 Series, Boston had the added benefit of taking on an opponent that was coming into the World Series off a long layoff.
In more ways than one, of course. The Tigers played Game 1 Wednesday night after sitting around doing nothing (i.e. playing goofy practice games) for a full five days after wrapping up their sweep of the Yankees. They had the same problem six years ago, when they had to sit around for about a week after sweeping the Oakland A's before taking on the Cardinals for the championship.
The Tigers looked lifeless and utterly overmatched when they lost the '06 Fall Classic to the Cardinals in five games, and they certainly looked lifeless and overmatched in San Francisco. It already looks like they're falling into the exact same trap all over again.
Is this what it's going to be for the Tigers? Are they really going to follow up their sweep of the Yanks with a sweep at the hands of the Giants?
Hmmm...I have to weigh that. Hang on.
No, probably not. It's awfully tempting to get caught up in the moment of the Giants' win, but I can't quite knee-jerk my way into predicting a clean sweep for three reasons.
One: It's one game.
Two: I picked the Tigers to win in seven, so I'm kinda obligated to stand by my pick.
Three: There's still much to like about these Tigers even despite the fact they got their fannies whipped in Game 1.
I'd bet my bottom dollar that we're not going to see Verlander pitch so poorly the next time he takes the mound in Game 5. As it is, he didn't look all that bad before Pagan's squibbler brought the crowd to life in the third inning, and then things were made all the more difficult for him when pitching coach Jeff Jones made an ill-advised trip to the mound right before Sandoval's second home run.
Verlander, of course, is not the only Tigers starter worth having faith in. Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer have all been quite good this postseason in their own right. Fister is perfectly capable of evening the series in Game 2 on Thursday night, especially if Madison Bumgarner's postseason troubles continue. Sanchez and Scherzer could then give the Tigers a 3-1 lead in the blink of an eye.
The Tigers will have to generate some offense too, obviously. That would seem to be a tricky proposition after they managed only three runs in the first game of the series, but the bright side is that each of the first six hitters in Jim Leyland's lineup collected at least one hit on the night. They would have collected more had it not been for a couple excellent catches by Gregor Blanco out in left field.
So a sweep?
Nah. The Tigers are winning at least one game in this series, and I have to say that I still feel pretty good about my Tigers-in-seven pick. There's still a chance that they'll make the Giants a bunch of sad pandas when all is said and done.
For now, all I'm willing to concede is that the Giants have a well-earned 1-0 lead in this series, and that they definitely have the Tigers' full attention.
When they go to sleep tonight, they shall dream of pandas. Snarling, bloodthirsty pandas.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. First person to say "I see what you did there" in the comments section about the sad panda reference gets a cookie.
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