Check the calendar. It's not 2010 anymore, certainly not for Barry Zito and Pablo Sandoval.
You've already heard the story of Zito's return to relevance. It was well documented before (and during) Game 1 of the World Series that the San Francisco Giants starter was left off the 2010 postseason roster by manager Bruce Bochy, only to work his way back into the starting rotation, getting himself in form to start a game in the 2012 World Series.
Because the Giants needed seven games to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals, Zito's spot in the rotation—thanks in part to suddenly lights-out reliever Tim Lincecum's struggles as a starter—fell in line for Game 1.
An ace, Zito is not. Not anymore. On Wednesday night, however, facing the best starter in baseball in Justin Verlander, the former Cy Young Award winner sure pitched like one for the Giants.
Zito threw 5.2 innings of one-run, six-hit baseball with one walk and three strikeouts. He may not have clocked a pitch close to 90 mph all night, but he hit his spots—he threw 53 strikes on 81 pitches in a tight strike zone from home-plate umpire Gerry Davis—and kept the Detroit Tigers bats off balance. Most importantly for San Francisco, Zito pitched well with the lead, keeping the Tigers off the scoreboard until the sixth inning, when the game was already broken wide open.
Pablo Sandoval did that breaking. He had the game of a lifetime in Game 1, leading the Giants to the victory by going 4-for-4 from the plate with three home runs and four runs batted in.
Sandoval became just the fourth player in Major League Baseball history to hit three home runs in a World Series game, joining Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols.
If those names don't make the feat impressive enough, try this note for perspective: Sandoval's three-homer night marks just the fifth time (Ruth did it twice) any player has hit three homers in a single World Series game in the 809 games played since 1903. In more than 100 years of baseball, nearly 15,000 players have stepped to the plate in the World Series, and one of them hitting three dingers in the same game has happened just five times.
This is quite a different World Series experience than the last time, as Zito told reporters after the Game 1 victory:
Baseball is a very difficult sport. There are lots of ups and downs, and you have to be professional on the downs and stay even-keel on the ups. There's definitely kind of a cool thing that we are both sitting up here [talking to reporters] after 2010.
It certainly was "kind of cool" for Sandoval, after a night that was in stark contrast to the 2010 World Series. Despite getting a ring that season, the big Panda would probably like to forget the 2010 postseason altogether.
While Zito wasn't even on the playoff roster in 2010, Sandoval was relegated to the bench, a glorified pinch-hitter and fill-in guy for much of the postseason. After Game 1, he shared that perspective with reporters.
Said Sandoval (via MLB.com):
Man, I still can't believe it. When you're a little kid, you dream of being in the World Series.
[In] 2010, I was part of the World Series. I didn't get a chance to play too much. I'm enjoying this World Series. I'm enjoying all my moments. You never know when it's going to happen again.
Sandoval struggled so much down the stretch in 2010 that Bochy replaced him with journeyman Juan Uribe early in the playoffs. Sandoval did get a few starts, including one in the NLCS and one in the World Series. Both were losses, but he mustered just three hits in the entire 2010 playoff run and was hardly a contributor at all.
To put it in further perspective, Sandoval had as many home runs in Game 1 of the 2012 World Series as at-bats in the entire 2010 World Series.
Things sure are different for the Panda now, but they could have been very different if the third baseman didn't get a midseason wake-up call this June.
Sandoval played in just 108 games this year (after just 117 last season), battling injuries and weight issues. He didn't let the 2010 disappointment get to him, working into an All-Star-caliber player the last two seasons. Yet despite that, he became a pariah earlier this season when the Giants were fighting to catch the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In June, he got mixed up in a messy legal situation after partying in a night club before the start of a rehab assignment.
Off-field troubles aside, the bigger issue, from a baseball standpoint, was whether Sandoval had the makeup to take the game seriously enough to focus on rehab and get in shape. The Giants invested a lot of money into Sandoval last year—three years, $17.5 million—and they needed to see a return on that investment.
Bochy called Sandoval out in June, fed up with the nonsense but hopeful the player was finally starting to get it (via AP, h/t ESPN.com):
There comes a time when you don't want to hear it, you need action. That's got to happen now, which has this past week. He worked hard, he's getting it down. That has to be consistent, it can't be for three or four days or a week. It's got to be for the season. That's what he needs to do, that's what we want to see and he knows that's what he needs to do. He's a vital part of this team. As we've seen, just a couple years ago, when he's not quite in the condition he needs to be it's hard to perform to your capability.
Sandoval was listening. He worked himself back into the lineup and, despite a rather dreadful August, played well over much of the second half of the season to justify his spot in the heart of the Giants lineup.
As good as a parade must have felt for both Sandoval and Zito in 2010, the moment had to be bittersweet. The Giants won that World Series in spite of the two of them, in no way because of what they were able to accomplish.
Zito's entire tenure in San Francisco has been a disappointment until now, playing out one of the richest contracts in baseball history for very little return on the investment. He had a resurgence this season and certainly proved deserving of his spot in the rotation.
So far, he is making the most of his opportunity, not just to help his team win another World Series, but to erase—or at least mitigate—the personal failures in the past.
This playoff run has gone a long way, for both players, of mitigating the frustrations of the past. No matter what happens the rest of the series, nobody will forget the night for either of the Giants' Game 1 stars.
Sandoval is in the early lead for World Series MVP after one game. Zito has certainly secured himself another World Series start in Game 5, if the Giants even need it.
Both players have worked hard to rebuild their careers and rewrite their stories in San Francisco. Whatever happens the rest of the World Series, Game 1 was a heckuva chapter for each of them.