SAN FRANCISCO – Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, Albert Pujols. And now, a Panda.
The 2012 World Series went directly from the starting blocks to the history books Wednesday night as San Francisco third baseman Pablo Sandoval crushed home runs in his first three at-bats, leading the Giants to an 8-3 romp past Detroit ace Justin Verlander and the Tigers in Game One at AT&T Park.
Sandoval stunned Verlander with a solo home run to deep right-center on an 0-2 count in the first inning and a two-run, opposite-field shot to left in the third. He then torched reliever Al Alburquerque for another solo shot to center in the fifth to complete just the fifth three-homer game in Series history.
Ruth did it twice (in 1926 and 1928), Jackson did it in the Yankees’ 1977 clincher against the Dodgers and Pujols connected thrice last year in Game Three at Texas. That’s it in the World Series. Sandoval, the first player ever to do it in the first three at-bats of a series, had a chance to become the first man to hit four, but only singled in a two-run seventh off bedraggled Detroit closer Jose Valverde to close a 4-for-4 night.
“Man, I still can’t believe it,” a grinning Sandoval said. “When you’re a little kid, you dream of being in the World Series, but I was thinking of being in this situation, three homers in one game. You have to keep focused, keep focused and playing your game. You don’t have to be too excited.”
“To watch that, I’ll never forget it,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy. “Three home runs on a stage like this, that’s pretty impressive.”
The Giants bruised Verlander for five runs in four innings – his shortest start since 2010 – in taking the early lead in the series. Game Two is here tonight at 8:07 (Ch. 29) and San Francisco is already in a good position based on recent history.
The Game One winner has won the championship in eight of the last nine World Series and the Giants are the lone exception, winning the opener in 2002 at Anaheim but losing the series. The Giants are on an incredible roll right now, winning four straight postseason games by a combined score of 28-4 against St. Louis and Detroit.
Sandoval is the 245-pounder with the roly-poly physique that has earned him the nickname “Kung Fu Panda” and endeared him to fans here who wear panda hats in his honor. Sandoval, who hit only 12 home runs during the regular season, sat out four of the five games against Texas (including the opener) as the Giants won in 2010.
Pitcher Barry Zito, mired in a brutal slump in 2010, didn’t even make the roster two years ago but was front and center to throw 5 1/3 innings and get the win Wednesday.
Most of the talk coming into the game was about Verlander, who had been virtually unhittable in winning all three of his starts this postseason. But he was far from that on this night. When they weren’t rocking Verlander, the Giants were fouling pitches off and working deep counts to frustrate him.
Verlander threw 98 pitches in just four innings – his shortest start since June 22, 2010.
He threw 38 in the third inning, his most all season.
“I didn’t execute,” Verlander said. “It was kind of a battle for me from the get-go and they took advantage of that.”
“His fastball command was not good,” said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. “He got out of sync, he got on fast forward.”
The Giants pounded the Detroit ace just as they crushed Texas’ Cliff Lee in their 11-7 Game One win here two years ago. Verlander and Lee had remarkably similar numbers entering those starts as both were 3-0 in their postseasons with Verlander’s earned run average at 0.74 and Lee’s at 0.75.
“It’s hard to figure this game sometimes,” Bochy said. “You hear the old adage, that’s baseball. These guys are human, and sometimes they’re not quite on top of their game.”
Verlander, who lost two games to St. Louis as a rookie in 2006, saw his career Series ERA bloat to 7.20.
Verlander had given up exactly zero home runs this season on 0-2 counts – and only four in his entire career. But Sandoval got around on a 95-mph fastball in the first and sent it on a screeching line to deep right-center. It was the first time a Giant had gone deep in the opening inning of a World Series since Hall of Famer Mel Ott did it in 1933.
Verlander actually retired eight of the first nine men he faced before disaster struck with two out in the third.
Angel Pagan fouled off three two-strike pitches and then chopped a high one-hopper toward third. Miguel Cabrera was there ready to make the play when the ball clanked the right corner of the bag and kangarooed past him into left field, with Pagan scooting into second for a double.
“Crazy play,” Cabrera said. “Freakish.”
Marco Scutaro then fouled off a pair of full-count pitches for an RBI single to make it 2-0. The orange towel-waving crowd of 42,855 then erupted when Sandoval connected for his second home run on the first delivery after Detroit pitching coach Jeff Jones visited the mound.
“He’s got good stuff, but throwing me fastballs that were good pitches to hit,” Sandoval said. “I got them good.”
When Sandoval connected in the fifth to make it 6-0, it gave him just the second three-homer game by a batter in the ballpark’s 13 seasons.