Thursday, October 25, 2012
World Series Game 1: The Panda Pounces
Pablo Sandoval couldn't have picked a more dramatic few hours to enjoy the first three-bomb game of his major league life. Shaking hands with Albert Pujols, Reggie Jackson, and Babe Ruth does World Series wonders for streaky-hitting, roly-poly third basemen who resemble Yogi Bear being stuffed into the picnic basket.
And the Detroit Tigers couldn't have picked a more heartbreaking day to remind themselves what the San Francisco Giants, their AT&T Park audience, and who knew how many million on television were reminded: Even Justin Verlander can be, and is, only human, now and then, and once in awhile even a Barry Zito who might have been left for dead once upon a time can out-pitch him on a pleasant October night.
Verlander was human enough Wednesday to think Sandoval couldn't possible handle a high riding two-strike fastball with two out and nobody on in the bottom of the first. And Sandoval was inhuman enough to hit it into the front of the center field seats. Verlander was human enough to think he could shake that off in the bottom of the third, bag Sandoval for the side after two outs, a freak double, an RBI single, and a mere man on first. And Sandoval was inhuman enough to hit a ball-two rider into the left field seats.
Then, in the bottom of the fifth, Verlander's relief, Al Albuquerque, was made to wish he'd made that left toin. He fed Sandoval a one-out, 1-1, thigh-high slider, which slid about as much as sandpaper on velcro. And Sandoval drove that one over the dead center field fence, right in front of the elevated television cameras.
Salud, Albert Pujols. Hey, there, Reg-gie! Top of the evening to ye, Bambino.
Who expected even these Giants, this aggregation of relentless pests, to get an early-and-often five-run jump against the Tiger whom most minds living and otherwise swear to be a pitcher who's painful enough to face on a regular season but the equivalent of orthodontic surgery without an anesthetic in a postseason? And, then, to watch with jaws hitting the dugout floor as their free-swinging, roly-poly third baseman sent three over the fences, while their too-much-bruised starting pitcher continued what he started in the National League Championship Series by out-pitching Verlander when the rare opportunity arose?
Probably, nobody but the Giants, their shepherds, and the throng that packed AT&T Park late Wednesday afternoon. They've nicknamed themselves cockroaches this time around, having been mere Morons winning a World Series two years ago, and if the Tigers thought they'd open up a can of Black Flag on them they didn't account for the Giants' wearing the appropriate gas masks.
On the other hand, who didn't expect Marco Scutaro to be in the middle of fattening the Giants' extremely early, and perhaps surprising, 2-0 lead? After Angel Pagan fought through seven pitches and smacked a freak double off the third base pad right before Miguel Cabrera might have wrapped a glove around the bounder, Scutaro fouled off two full-count Verlander services before shooting a single up the pipe to send home Pagan readily enough. Up stepped Sandoval, off the zone went balls one and two, and out it went.
And, an inning later, wasn't it bad enough in the Tigers' minds that Barry Zito had kept them at long arm's length through four shutout innings, after shaking off a little would-be game-opening rough stuff, before he shot a two-out RBI single in the bottom of the fourth?
Zito needed defensive help to wiggle out of the first inning after Omar Infante singled and Cabrera fought his way to a walk, setting up two runners for Prince Fielder. Fielder swung on the first pitch and popped it up behind the right field side of second base, and Hunter Pence hustling in from deeper right waded into a small crowd to haul it down. And Sandoval had to stare down a bizarre hop off Delmon Young's bat before scooping it, somehow, and throwing to second to force Cabrera for the side.
The left-hander certainly wasn't complaining in the fourth inning, either, when Young chopped one off the plate for which catcher Buster Posey lunged in a hurry, tagging Young before winging it to second to double up Fielder and stopping the Tigers from thinking about any more rough stuff in the inning.
Sandoval squared off against Verlander with two out in the first and hit the high rider into the front of the center field seats. Zito dispatched the Tigers in the second with a swinging strikeout (Jhonny Peralta) and grounders to either side of second base, then shook off another mild threat in the third, stranding Austin Jackson (one-out base hit up the pipe) by striking out Infante on a check swing and watching Gregor Blanco show up somehow to snatch a hard liner from Cabrera for that side.
By that third inning it was as though the Giants had performed their Ph.D. dissertations in "Neutralising Traveling Gas" in a crash course. They anticipated Verlander's velocity, found it just about as advertised, and simply applied the correct ratio of geographic location to contact. By the time Verlander was lifted for pinch hitter Danny Worth, who ended a swift top of the fifth with an eight-pitch strikeout leaving Zito none too drained, the game was exactly half over and neither Verlander nor the Tigers could figure out quite what had happened to them.
"Attack his fastball," Sandoval said when it was all over.
He'd faced Verlander in the All-Star Game and gone down on a breaking ball. Lesson learned, and remembered. The pupil swung himself into elite World Series company and the teacher came out for a pinch hitter midway through the fifth inning in a 5-0 hole.
Until the Tigers began to roar a little bit in the top of the sixth Zito cruised reasonably and effectively, just days after he turned the key in the ignition on the Giants' League Championship Series self-resurrection. Then Jackson doubled to left and helped himself to third on a fly out to center before Cabrera poked him home with a single up the pipe. And then, Zito needed Blanco to preserve his bounty again, this time the lithe San Francisco left fielder running in, diving for, and catching Fielder's opposite field sinking liner, about two seconds before Blanco hit the deck holding on.
It saved at least a run and took a little steam out of Zito at once, considering Young following with another single up the pipe. That provoked manager Bruce Bochy to take no chances, lift his stout left-hander to a loud, standing ovation, when Zito clearly if not angrily preferring to finish what he started in this inning, at least.
"This is just the icing on the cake, the boys coming out swinging and the defense coming huge," Zito said.
Bochy brought in Tim Lincecum, who's been bullpen money this postseason after a shaky regular season dropped him out of its rotation. The hair-flapping right-hander teased Peralta with ball one before zipping a three-more-pitch, swinging strikeout on the Detroit shortstop for the side.
The Tigers must have wanted to believe this Game One was nothing but a teaser. They hadn't seen Zito, the first man to make his first World Series start 10 years after bagging his only Cy Young Award, this effective in an extremely long time, in twice a dog's age. Zito wasn't anything close to overpowering and the Tigers couldn't overpower him if they'd brought bazookas instead of bats to the plate. Until they pried the single run out of him in the sixth the Tigers managed to get only four men on base and only one in scoring position and all four were left behind.
The Giants must have wanted to clean, stuff, and mount everyone observing the Tigers' too-easy dispatch of the Yankees in the American League Championship series, and the week's worth of rest, during which the Tigers arranged intra-organization games to stay sharp, and concluding the single day's rest between winning the National League Championship Series and opening the World Series could only mean disaster against Verlander and his threshing machine.
And there was Sandoval, a man whose conditioning once so alarmed his team that they launched a so-called Operation Panda aimed at getting him to peel a seatful of pounds off. A man who barely figured in the Giants' 2010 World Series conquest and spent nearly six weeks in sick bay with a broken hamate bone. A man who hit the first ducks-on-the-pond triple in all-sar history this season, then missed almost a month after injuring a hamstring stretching for a throw while filling in at first base in the final third of July.
There was Kung Fu Panda, all patched up and still resembling five pounds of baloney in a three pound sack, becoming the fourth man to hit three bombs in a single World Series game but the first to do it in his first three at-bats.
"He was a sight to see tonight," Zito said, making possibly the understatement of the week.
It almost seemed a let-down when Sandoval batted again in the seventh, with one out and (who else?) Scutaro on with another RBI single, and got himself a mere line single up the high pipe, off embattled Jose Valverde, making his first gig since getting strafed in the first American League Championship Series game, before Posey went inside-out on 1-1 and cued one into right center to send home Scutaro with the eighth Giants run. It left Valverde with a 30.38 postseason ERA. Not quite the way to convince your boss he acted prematurely when parceling your job out to other co-workers.
Don't ask the Tigers about let-downs. The Giants made their horse resemble a pony for the night, none of the Tigers' bullpen had many answers for the Giants' incessant pecking and pounding, and none of their hitters had any answers when Lincecum followed his threat-ending swishout of Peralta by striking out four of the next six hitters he faced.
Leaving Bochy to leave the ninth for his left-right-left bulls. George Kontos shook off Peralta's one-out, excuse-me two-run homer in and out of Pagan's glove over the wall, picked off pinch-hitter Andy Dirks' bounce-backer, but couldn't stop Avila from fighting his way to a two-out walk. So Jeremy Affeldt walked in from the pen, took a breath, threw pinch-hitter Ramon Santiago one pitch, and Crawford looked like a man about to sink into a warm bath as he picked the grounder with aplomb and got the game-ending force.
No one doubts Verlander's ability to pick up, dust off, and start all over again. But nobody doubts now that he can be beaten now and then. All it took was Sandoval remembering an All-Star lesson and the Giants otherwise remembering what got them to this World Series in the first place. And, a left-hander left for dead not long ago who remembered how to become a human Mixmaster just in time.
Not everyone makes the human memory bank look this solvent.