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SAN FRANCISCO – Separate the man from the mania and the grrr from the girth, for Pablo Sandoval on Wednesday night hit three home runs in Game 1 of the World Series.
Over nine pitches, through five innings, across two pitchers – one of them the best starter in the game – Sandoval arrived with his heavy gait and charming smile to a place that held only three before him.
The Babe (twice), Reggie, Albert. And now Panda.
This is a place of icons. Of 1,752 career home runs. Of Hall-of-Famers, present and future. Of a flair for time and place, cool October evenings, searing pressure and one cartoonish-ly skilled San Francisco Giant.
With three fluid and powerful swings, Sandoval became one of them. On the way to an 8-3 beating of the Detroit Tigers, Sandoval gave the Giants a 1-0 lead against Justin Verlander, then a 4-0 lead against Verlander, and then a 6-0 lead against reliever Al Alburquerque. Each at-bat ended at exactly three pitches. The loud and towering products of those swings sent the series in an unanticipated direction and the AT&T Park denizens who honor him with panda scalps on their heads into a fever pitch.
This is perhaps what they envisioned when the round Venezuelan kid with the infectious attitude showed up to hit .345 as a rookie, then .330 with 25 home runs in his first full big-league season. His profile brought comparisons to Kung Fu Panda, as did the seemingly serendipitous manner in which he put the bat head on the baseball, disguising an extreme talent for the most difficult act in sports.
Sometimes he was great, other times he was not, and occasionally he was injured. But he always had the swing, a knack for making contact from both sides of the plate. And two years after being benched during a World Series that ended in a Giants championship, Sandoval had one of the enduring nights in the history of World Series amid a postseason in which he’s hit six home runs and batted .370.
“Man,” he said, “I still can’t believe it.”
In a game that appeared to lean heavily toward the Tigers and their ace, it was Verlander’s mistake that initiated Sandoval’s volley of home runs. Tigers catcher Alex Avila requested a fastball down and away from Sandoval, batting lefty against the powerful right-hander. Instead the pitch was up and over the plate. With a flash of bat, Sandoval pounced, drawing a gasp from the crowd and sending center fielder Austin Jackson back across the warning track and to the base of the green fence nearly 400 feet from home plate. In the span of 244 starts and more than 1,600 innings of regular and postseason play, Verlander had allowed four home runs on 0-and-2 counts.
“When I think of Pablo Sandoval, I’m thinking hand-eye coordination,” said Will Clark, the former Giant who batted .303 over a 15-year career. “There are not too many people who can take their hands to the baseball on so many different levels. It’s God-given. Definitely God-given.”
Two innings later, Verlander was in trouble. After a pair of routine Giants outs, Angel Pagan bounced a fluke double off the third-base bag and Marco Scutaro drilled a single to center field. The two at-bats required 16 pitches from Verlander, who then went ball-one, ball-two to Sandoval. The pitching coach came to the mound. Verlander stewed. And the next pitch, a fastball away from Sandoval was launched toward left field.
In the on-deck circle, Buster Posey thought, “He got it.” He got it again.
Verlander turned, stared and said, half to himself, “Wow.”
“It’s hard to deduce anything when he’s hitting like he is,” Posey said. “He can hit a ball that’s over his head and he can hit a ball in the dirt. It just looks like he’s in a great position every time at his point of contact. He gets good separation, explodes through the zone and finishes through the ball.”
When Sandoval came to the plate in the fifth inning, the Giants had already finished Verlander. Alburquerque is the slider specialist, another right-hander, and the night – Sandoval’s night – appeared to be feeding on itself. The first pitch from Alburquerque, Sandoval fouled off, then lost his bat, flinging it toward the Tigers’ dugout. The knob of the bat splintered against the railing. It was the bat he’d used for all of the month.
“It’s not the bat,” Sandoval said. “It’s you. It’s everything you’ve got inside you. If you have faith, you have to believe in yourself.”
Holding a new, unmarred and untested model, Sandoval took a pitch out of the strike zone. The next pitch was knee-high, a slider, and Sandoval drove it again to center field. The roar from the crowd was unmistakable. He’d done it a third time.
“When he’s on like he is right now, there’s not much you can get by him,” Aubrey Huff said. “He’s just one of those guys who can hit anything.”
Posey, again in the on-deck circle, almost had to laugh.
“It was amazing,” he said. “I just looked at his face. I wanted to see his face when he crossed home. I think he knew the magnitude of what he did. Pretty special.”
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Sandoval had one more at-bat. In the seventh inning, he lined a single to left-center field. In four times to the plate, he’d accounted for 13 total bases. He’d driven a Giants offense that in 81 regular-season home games hit 31 home runs, worst in the league. He’d tied Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols in the realms of strength and drama. He’d become the first to hit three home runs in a game at AT&T Park since Kevin Elster in 2000, a 12-year span that included a lot of chances for Barry Bonds.
Now his broken bat has gone to a better place – “The guy from Cooperstown take it,” Sandoval said – and so has his game. He has found his moment, the one he’ll share with some of the great hitters of all time.
Clark adores Sandoval. Hitters love other hitters. They especially love exceptional hitters, whatever body they inhabit.
“The constant scrutiny about his weight, constant,” Clark said when asked about Sandoval’s greatest challenge. “Nobody ever talks about the fact he’s one of the great hand-eye coordinated hitters of his generation. You hit three homers and you lose 40 pounds. It’s amazing.”
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