World Series Wrap: When Pandas Attack

Pablo SandovalThoughts on the Giants’ 8-3 walloping of Detroit in Game 1 of the World Series while wondering if we just found our best tweet of the postseason

BABE RUTH, REGGIE JACKSON, ALBERT PUJOLS … AND PABLO SANDOVAL

Kung Fu Panda became just the fourth player in major league history to hit three homers in a World Series game. That he did it in 2012’s stingiest home run park makes the feat all the more remarkable. That he did it against the best pitcher on the planet makes it nearly unbelievable. Seeing the pitches that he hit and how he hit them makes you think you’ve just seen the impossible.

Sandoval’s first homer came on an 0-2 count. Justin Verlander threw a letter-high, 95-mph fastball, and the Verlander Harasser swung like he was somehow expecting the pitch, clubbing a sizzling line drive that cleared the wall in center, 411 feet away. Sandoval came to bat in the third, with a man on and the Giants up 2-0. Verlander threw another 95-mph fastball, this one right on the outside edge. As Sandoval’s deep fly landed in the bleachers, it wasn’t hard to read the reaction on Verlander’s lips: “Wow.” The third homer came in the fifth. In for Verlander, Al Alburquerque threw a shin-high breaking ball. Sandoval reached down and golfed it 435 feet. 6-0 Giants. Game over.

Sandoval has always had that kind of talent, able to see and hit even the toughest pitches, a hitter so good at whacking bad balls that he’s earned comparisons to Vladimir Guerrero. But despite those flashes of brilliance, Sandoval’s numbers haven’t always reflected his gifts. His first full season in the majors was a monster, as Panda hit .330/.387/.556, with 74 extra-base hits in 153 games. He crashed back to earth the next year, managing just a .268/.323/.409 line. Cranked it back up in 2011 by going .315/.357/.552, then hit .283 with just 12 homers in an injury-plagued 2012. He can reach everything, but he can also be exploited with good pitch selection and location: All 12 of his round-trippers this year came via pitches on the outside half of the plate.

Maybe that’s the nature of the beast. A swing-at-everything approach can leave everyone else looking like a Hall of Famer one day and a Little Leaguer the next. Watch last night’s highlights, though, and you marvel at a player at the height of his powers, one who saw only three out of 11 pitches in the strike zone but still collected four hits and a near-record-setting 13 total bases. Sandoval isn’t Vlad, probably won’t ever be. But for one night, he evoked something better: the original member of the World Series three-homer club, with everything in common short of Sandoval calling his shot.

THE GIANTS’ STRENGTHS EXPLOIT THE TIGERS’ WEAKNESSES

ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted an amazing factoid in the third inning: Justin Verlander had already reached 59 pitches as he struggled to navigate what would prove to be the Tigers’ nail-in-the-coffin inning. Of those first 59 pitches, 17 of them resulted in foul balls. Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro were particularly indomitable. Pagan fouled off pitch after pitch in the third before bagging a fluky double on the the eighth pitch of the at-bat that hit the third-base bag and resulted in a sudden case of Miguel Cabrera paralysis. Scutaro followed with a solid, run-scoring single on the eighth pitch of his own at-bat; he’s now taken 27 straight swings without missing on a single one (per ESPN Stats & Information).

The Giants would eventually strike out 10 times. But their ability to spoil quality pitch after quality pitch exploited Verlander’s Achilles’ heel …

THE WORLD’S BEST PITCHER OFTEN ISN’T ALL THAT GREAT EARLY IN GAMES

Bill Chuck’s excellent Verlander breakdown shows how the big righty gets stronger as games wear on, but also appears vulnerable early in games. He throws his slowest fastballs in the early innings, and tends to give up a bunch of runs in the first and fourth, when he’s still harnessing his stuff and when the best hitters in opposing lineups often hit. The Giants put enough runners on early that the third became the inning in which their best hitters came to bat. But the broader formula was the same: Get to Verlander quickly, or you’re in for a world of 99-mph fastballs and a gruesome death. The Giants did in fact get to Verlander quickly, and the pitcher who’d gone 3-0 with a 0.74 ERA and .122 opponents’ batting average this postseason got his lunch handed to him.

The Giants also showed their superiority on …

DEFENSE

If you were going to lobby for Melky Cabrera to play in the World Series, you’d do it with the idea of starting him at DH during games played in Detroit. Because Gregor Blanco is an asset to the Giants, as one of the best defensive left fielders in the game. Though the Giants would eventually roll to a lopsided win, Blanco’s diving catches on sinking liners from Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder came at important junctures in the game — the latter with the Tigers mounting a last-gasp rally, having scored their first run of the game, put a runner on, and pushed Barry Zito to the brink of the showers. For comparison’s sake, let’s see how his left-field counterpart did for the Tigers …

Oh no. Oh dear.

THE TIGERS HAD TROUBLE ALL YEAR WITH LEFT-HANDED PITCHING

… and Zito made them pay. With fewer homers against lefties than any AL team except Cleveland and a poor .395 slugging average against southpaws, the Tigers already profiled as potentially vulnerable coming into this game. Zito being in vintage form sealed the deal. In the second, he threw a ridiculous, sweeping curve that started eye-high off the outside edge and ended inside and at Jhonny Peralta’s ankles for strike three. He followed that with another inside curve to Avisail Garcia, inducing a weak ground-out to short. He created a bunch of quick at-bats, with eight of the 23 hitters he faced ending their plate appearances in the first two pitches. Zito’s curve was so tantalizing and so elusive that he would set up hitters, then fire 85-mph fastballs right by them, the way he did to pinch-hitter Danny Worth in the fifth. The same pitcher who was scratched for each of the Giants’ three playoff rounds in 2010 made his first career World Series start and held the Tigers’ powerful bats in check, yielding just one run in 5⅔ innings. If you called Zito crushing Verlander, it’s probably time to test your lottery skills.

TIM LINCECUM IS TURNING INTO THE GIANTS’ SECRET WEAPON

Not easy to do for a two-time Cy Young winner. But Timmay’s struggles were well documented this season, and the fact that a pitcher who’d only pitched twice never pitched in relief before this year’s playoffs was suddenly relegated to the pen by the likes of Zito (at the time, who knew?) and a struggling Madison Bumgarner spoke volumes. Still, we’re in full lemons-into-lemonade mode now: Lincecum faced seven batters in Game 1, retired them all, and struck out five. In four relief appearances this postseason, he’s allowed just one earned run on three his, with 14 strikeouts in 10 2/3 innings, for a 0.84 ERA. Using Lincecum that long took away a big weapon for a potential Bumgarner meltdown in Game 2. But thereafter, the Giants will trot out a bullpen that’s both very good and very deep, so much so that Bruce Bochy could pull any struggling starter in the second or third inning and still give his team a chance to win.

THE GIANTS PITCHERS EVEN OFFER AN EDGE WHEN THEY’RE HITTING

Barry Zito’s run-scoring single off Verlander in the fourth made it four straight games in which a Giants pitcher has knocked in a run. That’s the first time that’s happened in playoff history.

DID RUST AFFECT VERLANDER … AND COULD IT MESS WITH OTHER TIGERS STARTERS?

After the game, Jim Leyland blamed the eight days between Verlander starts as a key reason for his ace’s struggles. It’s tough to say definitively that time off was the cause, and not the Giants’ stubbornness at bat, or just an all-timer of a night for Sandoval. But if there’s something to the theory, what should we make of Doug Fister, who’ll have gone 12 days between starts when he takes the mound for Game 2? How about Max Scherzer’s nine-day break before Game 3, or Anibal Sanchez gearing up for Game 4 having not seen live game action for 14 days?

Given Bumgarner’s woes over the past couple months (.400 batting average against, 34.5 percent ground ball rate, average fastball of 90.2 mph in his past nine starts, vs. .220, 47.5 percent, and 91.2 mph in his previous 25 starts), and a potentially rusty Fister, a Game 2 slugfest is a very real possibility.

Filed Under: Detroit Tigers, MLB, San Francisco Giants, World Series

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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