Despite unpredictable play, Sandoval proving invaluable in postseason

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SAN FRANCISCO — Pablo Sandoval is a lovable guy with a huggable body who draws his nickname, Kung Fu Panda, from a cartoon character. He’s actually cuter than his bobblehead doll. Giants fans, many of whom sport Panda hats not just at AT&T Park but all over the Bay Area, adore him even though they are often exasperated by him because he’s a player of such contradictions.

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Sandoval is chubby (to be kind), but nimble. He is a wildly undisciplined hitter who nevertheless strikes out relatively rarely. His seven years with the Giants have been somewhat disappointing because he’s never quite blossomed into a big hitter, yet they’ve been exhilarating because of his habit of producing big hits. He provided another one of them Saturday night when the Giants desperately needed it: a two-run single in the sixth that broke a 4-4 tie, propelling them to an 11-4 win that tied the World Series at two games apiece and kept San Francisco from being pushed to the edge of the Series' cliff.

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Sandoval might even have tipped the Series back in favor of the Giants, who will have Madison Bumgarner, the best starting pitcher on either team, on the mound in Game 5. Then again, regardless of Game 5’s outcome, the series will be decided in Kansas City. Advantage, Royals. This is now a series, folks.

"Somewhere inside me secretly I had hoped that it would go seven games for the excitement ant thrill of it,” said Royals manager Ned Yost. “Sure looks that way.”

That seems much more likely now than it did in the third inning on Saturday when the Royals took a 4-1 lead. But then the Giants’ bats awakened, especially Sandoval’s.

“He’s just a clutch hitter,” Yost said. “He did a great job of hitting the ball right up the middle. Just a great at-bat. Won the ballgame for them.”

Sandoval hasn’t had a lot of great at-bats as a right-handed hitter, or even good ones. Even though he had sought out Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers’ right-handed slugger, for help with his swing from the right side during the offseason, Panda was batting .199 this season with five homers, a .244 on-base percentage and a .563 OPS from his weaker side entering Game 4. Those aren’t even backup shortstop numbers.

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Cabrera, a fellow Venezuelan, had several batting practice sessions with Sandoval in Valencia, Venezuela dissecting his swing, discussing game situations and testing his knowledge of pitchers’ patterns and weaknesses. Apparently it wasn’t enough, because Sandoval was worse than ever batting right-handed this season. Fans on Twitter and sports-talk radio have spent much of the Series, and even the first few innings of Game 4, declaring that he should just give up on hitting right-handed. He gave them more ammunition by flailing badly while striking out against lefty starter Jason Vargas in his first at-bat Saturday night.

“I don’t worry about that too much,” Sandoval said. “I just try to get my swing right. I know I can hit, from the right side or the left.”

Despite that ugly at-bat against Vargas, Sandoval ripped a pitch from Royals lefty Brandon Finnegan to center field in the sixth, a blow that might have saved the Giants from a 3-1 World Series deficit. Did we mention that Sandoval was a player of contradictions? 

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“Really, he’s been swinging the bat better from the right side lately,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy. “Late in September I thought he started to get a good feel from that side. I wasn’t surprised that he came through for us tonight.”

Yost was. The Giants had the bases loaded with one out when Sandoval came to the plate.

“I thought we had the situation right in the palm of our hand,” Yost said. We all know the difference between his left- and right-handed averages.”

But Yost surely also knew that Sandoval is best in the big moments, even on a night when he was still feeling the effects of a virus he’s been battling.

“He’s a warrior,” said Giants second baseman Joe Panik. “He plays with everything he’s got. You couldn’t tell by his body language. If you didn’t know he was sick, you couldn’t tell.”

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Maybe that’s because big games and important at-bats make him well. Sandoval’s three home runs in Game 1 of the 2010 World Series helped him earn the Series MVP, and he had a two-out, ninth-inning double that tied Game 2 of the NLDS against Washington, a game the Giants won in 18 innings. Without Sandoval’s clutch hitting in these three World Series runs, the Giants might be sad pandas. They probably wouldn’t be be pursuing their third championship in five years.

That’s the best argument to make for the Giants to re-sign Sandoval, 28, who will be a free agent after the season. How can they let a player go who has been so instrumental in their title runs? But here comes the contradiction: How can they keep a player whose struggles with his weight might derail his career sooner rather than later? How can they pay that player $100 million over five years, which is the kind of deal Sandoval is expected to be offered by someone, perhaps someones, like the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers?

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Sandoval, 5-foot-11, is listed at 245 pounds and estimating how much weight he has gained or lost each offseason has become a rite of spring for Giants observers. His brother serves as his personal cook, and the Giants have tried to monitor his diet in the offseason to make sure he gets the proper nutrition. But it seems obvious that Sandoval will never be slim, and there will always be the question of how much better a player he would be if he were. Do the Giants want to spend millions on Sandoval because he helped them make history, or do they want to let him walk because of fears about his future?

Those are questions for the days and weeks after the World Series. For now, all that matters is that the Series was beginning to get away from the Giants on Saturday night, and when they needed someone to help push it back in their direction, it was Sandoval who once again did the pushing. They may not keep him much longer, but right now, they would never let him go.