Column: Leave it to the pitcher and the Panda
SAN FRANCISCO (AP)
The empty champagne bottle sitting in the clubhouse as players passed by on their way to the showers was the only remaining sign of the celebration of a few nights earlier, when the San Francisco Giants somehow found their way into the World Series.
There would be no celebration on this night, because the Giants understand better than anyone that a 1-0 lead in the World Series doesn't guarantee anything. Not even when it's done in the most improbable manner on the backs of a couple of former postseason castoffs, one of whom made baseball history with three swings of the bat.
The pitcher and the Panda couldn't have been a more unlikely combination, though by now it's hard to be surprised by anything with these Giants. What other team, after all, could start one former Cy Young winner, then put in another when the first finally ran out of the adrenaline that even at its peak could only get him 85 mph on his fastball?
Barry Zito was on the scrap heap two years ago when the Giants won their first World Series since moving to San Francisco more than a half century ago. Pablo Sandoval had a great nickname but a slow bat and a big belly when he lost his job at third base for most of that series.
They weren't supposed to be the stars of this series, certainly not the featured actors in Game 1. That was the role for Justin Verlander, triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera or Prince Fielder on the heavily favored Detroit Tigers.
But Zito and Sandoval made magic Wednesday night before a frenzied crowd of 42,855 in their Halloween best orange and black at AT&T Park. Together they combined to beat the ace of the Detroit staff and perhaps set the tone for a World Series that might be very different than the one a lot of baseball people imagined.
''After they came in here with Verlander and couldn't win I'm sure it raises questions in their head about where they're at,'' said Tim Lincecum, the new ace reliever of the Giants.
Where they're at is down a game in a series that won't be over until one team wins four. Not exactly buried, but certainly not what the Tigers expected when they sent a pitcher who has been untouchable in the postseason to the mound for an outing that lasted just four innings.
For that, the Giants can thank a hitter who found a way to step away from the family lasagna, and a pitcher who finally found a way to earn his many millions.
''Barry is a story everybody should love. I get choked up just thinking about it,'' teammate Aubrey Huff said. ''And we all got a chance to witness history tonight. For everything that happened in `10 for Pablo to come and do something like this is pretty special.''
It was special when Sandoval - who embraced the Kung Fu Panda nickname a few years back - hit a line drive off a 95 mph Verlander fast ball in the first inning that never seemed to gain or lose altitude until after it disappeared over the center field fence. He hit another to left off Verlander in the third inning, then hit another line drive off an Al Alburquerque pitch over the center field fence in the fifth to become only the fourth player - Babe Ruth did it twice - to hit three home runs in a World Series game.
It could have gone from special to unbelievable had Sandoval hit one more when he came up against Tigers closer Jose Valverde in the seventh. But Sandoval had to settle for a sharp single that still capped one of the greatest World Series performances ever.
''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.''
Not too shabby for a player who was benched in the 2010 World Series and told by the Giants a few days later that he had better lay off the lasagna and get in shape or he would be playing the next season in Triple A Fresno.
''I'm sure he looks back at that time, that experience he had, and I'm sure he wasn't too happy with how it went there in 2010,'' Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. ''He looks very determined to show that not just us, everybody, what a great talent he is.''
Zito was always a great talent, too, and a great disappointment on this side of the bay ever since he was lured away from the Oakland A's in 2007 with a $126 million contract to be the ace of the Giants staff. But Zito struggled under the expectations of the big contract and was pitching so poorly in 2010 that the Giants left him off the postseason roster.
Junkball pitchers usually have to have smarts, though, just to survive. Zito was smarter than most and kept trying to find a way to win, finally breaking through in the second half of this year thanks to a tweak in his delivery and the addition of a cut fastball.
The Giants have won the last 14 games he's started, with the biggest a shutout win in St. Louis that kept their postseason hopes alive - but just barely. Still, he was not anyone's idea of a Game 1 starter, especially going up against the hard-throwing Verlander.
''Just awesome, man,'' Zito said. ''Just a pleasure to be a part of it.''
That's something all the Giants could say after having to win six postseason elimination games just to get in the World Series. They broke out the champagne after putting away the Cardinals on Monday night, and the tendency after such an emotional win might have been to come out flat. But Sandoval's home run in the first inning gave them momentum against Verlander, and the game wasn't as close as the final score indicated.
It was just one game, and the Giants will need three more to raise another World Series flag in their rollicking ballpark by the Bay. But it was more than that for two players who clawed their way back into the spotlight, then delivered when it counted most.
''It's definitely kind of a cool thing that we're both sitting up here after 2010,'' Zito said.
A lot of Giants fans think it's very cool, indeed.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or follow at http://twitter.com/timdahlberg