By David Bray
San Francisco Giants portly third baseman Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval can now be mentioned in the same sentence as baseball legends Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, and Albert Pujols. On October 24th, Sandoval became just the fourth player to hit three home runs in a World Series game. His offensive spark combined with another brilliant performance by Barry Zito catapulted the Giants over the American League champion Detroit Tigers in the first game of the Fall Classic. Games like these are what makes this time of year special for baseball fans.
The narrative going into the World Series was different from the way the game played out. A lot was talked about Detroit’s ace pitcher Justin Verlander and superstar third baseman Miguel Cabrera. Verlander is expected to win his second consecutive American League Cy Young Award, was the American League MVP last season and may very well be the best pitcher on the planet right now. Cabrera is a favorite to win the American League MVP this season, and became baseball’s first offensive Triple Crown (the league leader in home runs, runs batted in, and batting average) since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. After all the hype, it was San Francisco’s starting pitcher and third baseman that became the story of Game 1.
Barry Zito and Pablo Sandoval both earned World Series rings with the Giants in 2010, but neither player had as big a role in that championship as they would have liked. Zito has been a member of the Giants since he signed what was at the time the largest contract in history for a pitcher in 2007. A former Cy Young Award winner with the Oakland Athletics, Zito had struggled mightily since crossing the bay, and was left off the Giants playoff roster in 2010. For Sandoval, 2010 was his sophomore slump season after an impressive rookie season in 2009. Both players went into this postseason with a lot to prove to their teammates and their fans.
In the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Zito got the start in Game 5 when the Giants had their backs to the wall down three games to one. Zito went out there and pitched like it was 2002. He threw seven and two third innings of shutout baseball which sparked San Francisco’s comeback. While that game was impressive, few thought Zito could replicate that against Detroit’s formidable lineup while also having to keep pace with rested Tigers ace Verlander.
This is where Sandoval comes in. In the bottom of the first inning, the Giants were having difficulty getting the ball out of the infield. Sandoval was down two strikes before getting under a pitch and launching it deep over the center field wall for a solo home run. In his next at bat, the Kung Fu Panda homered to left field, again off Verlander, this time with second baseman Marco Scutaro on base. In his third at bat, Sandoval drove another solo shot over the wall in center off relief pitcher Al Albuquerque. These hits sparked the Giants’ offense that scored eight runs in the game. Sandoval joined very elite company after that performance. Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson both have plaques with their faces on it in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Albert Pujols will certainly get a plaque in Cooperstown when his playing days are over as well.
Zito was impressive once again. He allowed just one run over five and two thirds innings. When Giants manager Bruce Bochy came out of the dugout to pull Zito, the crowd rose to their feet and game him a standing ovation. Zito handed the ball over to Bochy and ran off the field tipping his hat to a crowd of fans that had booed him many times since signing top dollar and struggling with his new team. When Tim Lincecum struck out the next batter to end the inning, Zito was the first guy to congratulate his teammate when he returned to the dugout.
While Zito and Sandoval defied odds and baffled experts, so did Verlander and Cabrera going the other way. When Zito came up to bat against Verlander in the 4th inning, Fox baseball color commentator Tim McCarver remarked how this was one of the biggest mismatches in all of baseball, since Zito is not known as a great hitting pitcher. Two pitches later, Zito ripped an opposite field base hit to left that drove in a run. Later in the game, after Zito came out of the game and Tim Lincecum came on in relief, McCarver remarked that Cabrera has few, if any, weaknesses as a hitter. Cabrera went on to strike out in that at bat.
The San Fransisco Giants were crowned World Series Champion after sweeping the Tigers, but the biggest story of October was the resilience of the San Francisco Giants throughout the playoffs . Every game different unlikely heroes stepped up. Star players like Lincecum have left their egos at the door and accepted whatever role will best help the team. Baseball pundits expected them to crumble in the National League West division race after the Los Angeles Dodgers reloaded at the trade deadline. These same pundits thought the Giants were toast when All Star Game MVP Melky Cabrera was suspended for the remainder of the regular season after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. In the face of this adversity, they only played better baseball and asserted their dominance over the Dodgers in baseball’s oldest rivalry. They have now won their third playoff series that experts did not expect them to win. The Giants did not get the respect one would expect of a team that won the World Series two years ago, their first since 1954 when they still played in Manhattan, but that’s they way they like it. The Detroit Tigers did not lie down, but the Giants beat them in convincing fashion.