Sandoval joins Mount Rushmore of World Series sluggers
SAN FRANCISCO -- After Pablo Sandoval was removed from World Series Game 1 Wednesday night, victory comfortably in hand for the Giants in the top of the ninth inning, the San Francisco third baseman, all 260 pounds or so depending on the last meal, jumped on the back of hitting coach Hensley Meulens and said, "Hey, that was history!"
Every World Series game is a rough cut diamond. The distillation of 162 games and three rounds of the postseason bring urgency and drama regardless of what happens. Some games become unforgettable for how victory was gained or given away. And a precious few become iconic enough to become the personal property of one man in perpetuity. The Don Larsen Game. The Bill Mazeroski Game. The Kirk Gibson Game. These are the true jewels of October that become our heirlooms to be passed on.
What Sandoval did last night was to mine a private piece of the World Series that is his forever. In the toughest ballpark in the majors to hit home runs this season, in a game started by the best pitcher in baseball, and after a season in which he hit only 12 homers, including just four in the entire second half, Sandoval walloped three home runs, all of which had jaw-dropping quality.
Nine pitches. Five swings. Three homers. Two bats. One famous Panda.
The Mount Rushmore of World Series sluggers for one night is now complete: Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, Albert Pujols and Sandoval. They are the only players in the 625-game history of the World Series to hit three home runs in a game.
And within that company, Sandoval stands alone: he is the only one to slug home runs in each of his first three plate appearances in a World Series game. When he came to bat in the seventh inning, it was only the second plate appearance in World Series history in which a batter had a chance at a fourth home run. In 1926, Ruth walked against Cardinals pitcher Bill Hallahan. Sandoval got a chance to swing the bat and did make solid contact yet again -- but settled for a single.
"Man, I still can't believe it," 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."
Sandoval never before had hit three homers in a game. He and Ruth are the only players to get their first three-homer game in the World Series. In the 13-year history of AT&T Park, Sandoval is the only Giant to hit three homers in this wide expanse of a yard. (Kevin Elster of the 2000 Dodgers is the only other player to dial long distance three times at AT&T.)
So, why not Sandoval? If you don't think the Giants are riding a great karmic wave, you haven't been paying attention to this postseason. Every night when the Giants play, baseballs take weird bounces, rain falls like holy water from the sky and pitchers crumble under pressure and strained obliques. Justin Verlander, who fairly needed oil between innings to work through the rust, looked like he might get out of the third inning -- two outs, nobody on base -- when he obtained a grounder by Angel Pagan. But the baseball kissed off the third-base bag and continued like a trespasser into left field for a punchline of a double. It would take Verlander 38 pitches to get out of what appeared to be a routine inning, and by then he was down, 4-0.
Game 1 was a re-enactment of 2010 World Series Game 1, when another all-October unbeatable pitcher, Cliff Lee of Texas, walked into AT&T Park with too much rest (eight days; Verlander had seven) and walked out with his clock cleaned by the Giants. Verlander has made 244 starts in his career, postseason included. This was only the third time he was gone after no more than four innings while giving up two home runs.
The invincibility of Verlander was shot three batters into the game, when Sandoval turned around a 95-mph fastball at the top of the strike zone on an 0-and-2 pitch and scalded it over the center-field wall. It was an extraordinary home run, and not only because Verlander did not give up a home run on an 0-and-2 count all year. It was one of those rare home runs that leaves a player's peer group in amazement.
"I don't know how many guys hit that pitch and hit it out," said Aubrey Huff, Sandoval's teammate. "I think you have to go back to Barry Bonds in his hey-day to find somebody who can take a pitch up and in like that and not just hit it, but hit it out to dead center. I was astounded. It was pretty amazing."
Meulens, as if stepping back to take the measure of a wall of Van Goghs, said, "My favorite was the first one: 0-and-2 95 mile an hour fastball up. I guess Verlander wanted to go away. [Alex] Avila was set up outside. But 95 up? That was pretty impressive."
Two innings later, in that grease fire of a third inning, Verlander fell behind Sandoval 2-and-0 with changeups. Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones then did the unthinkable: he made a mound visit to Verlander in the middle of an at-bat. It was like fact-checking Alex Trebek. The AT&T crowd, the noisiest and joyous in all of baseball, is so smart that the people knew this was another sign of vulnerability, if not panic. The great Verlander needed his hand held? Wow. The next pitch only brought more shock and awe. Verlander decided it was time to try another fastball down and away.
"Nobody looks down and away 2-and-0," Meulens said. "That was impressive, too, to hit it out the other way."
Sandoval pounded it over the wall in left field. And now Verlander was fully damaged, the ballpark was jumping with pure fun, and the tablets of history were being prepped for engraving. It was only the third inning and Sandoval already had two home runs.
"Between the second and third ones," reliever Jeremy Affeldt said, "I was riding a bike to start to get loose. And Pablo comes by and says to Will Clark, 'I'm just taking deep breaths and staying relaxed.'"
Verlander was done by the time Sandoval was back in the batter's box. This time, in the fifth, it was reliever Al Albuquerque who was given the assignment of trying to keep Sandoval in the park. Albuquerque threw a fastball that Sandoval tipped foul, after which the bat flew out of his hand and smacked against a railing toward the first-base side of the backstop. The knob of the bat broke, with a piece of it knocked loose. It was the same bat Sandoval had used the entire postseason -- through 13 games.
Sandoval was handed a new scepter. He watched the next pitch for a ball. Then Albuquerque tried a slider, but it didn't slide. It hung over the center of the plate, slightly down, and Sandoval pounded it over the center-field wall.
"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."
The road taken to Mount Rushmore was a winding one for Sandoval. At the age of 22 he already was a .333 hitter in 194 major league games with freakish hand-eye coordination and an appetite for life as large as any pitch within the area code of home plate. The Giants would be amazed, and chagrined, to see how quickly Sandoval could put on weight, especially in the offseason, when he could pack on pounds with home cooking in a matter of days. In 2010, when the Giants won their first world championship in San Francisco, Sandoval hit .268 and was reduced to a little used player in the playoff run. It was his wake-up call. Sandoval came back for the 2011 season with a better body and renewed determination. He has hit .299 since then, with a broken bone in his hand each season, including this one, suppressing his power numbers.
"He has the kind of power to hit 40 home runs," Huff said.
Only time will tell if Sandoval accumulates the kind of career to share more in common with Hall of Famers Ruth and Jackson and future Hall of Famer Pujols. What's important for the Giants is that Marco Scutaro and Sandoval, hitting 2-3 in the San Francisco lineup, have become the toughest outs in all the postseason. They are hitting a combined .368 with only seven strikeouts in 106 at-bats. The two Venezuelans are fun to watch: Scutaro picking through pitches like a finicky chef at a fruit and vegetable market and Sandoval brimming with the confidence and strength to get the barrel on the baseball no matter how askew the pitch. They are stones in the shoe of any pitcher: annoyances and worse with every step.
Late into the night, in a room off the Giants clubhouse, a representative from the Hall of Fame placed a bat across the arms of an upholstered chair and snapped a picture with his cell phone. This was the bat Sandoval had used to hit the first two home runs, the one that had broken against a backstop railing. The knob of that bat was repaired, with tape holding the loose piece back where it had been been.
The bat was being readied for a trip to Cooperstown. There the Panda's bat that produced two of his three World Series homers will rest in peace. The second bat? He wasn't giving that one up just yet. There is more hitting to be done with it.
What Sandoval keeps for himself is this jewel of a game. The 108th World Series opened with a great chunk of history -- the kind so big that you don't need to do any actual research to quote it. There are few World Series records that live in our consciousness with more renown that most home runs in one game. For the first 619 World Series games, it was the private property of Ruth and Jackson, the two great left-handed Yankees sluggers. And now in just the past six games we get just as many as players as did it in the first 619: Pujols and Sandoval.
Line them according to their career home runs when they hit three homers in one World Series game and you get an idea of the magnitude of what Sandoval just did: Ruth, 356 and again at 470; Jackson, 313; Pujols, 445; and Sandoval, a mere 76. He is in the company of greatness now. Sandoval gave us the best kind of history: the kind of big, unforgettable moments you never see coming.