World Series: Panda’s big night comes in homer graveyard
MLB • AT&T Park designed for pitching and contact hitting, not a 3-homer barrage.
Published: October 25, 2012 11:57AM
Updated: October 26, 2012 04:28PM
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San Francisco Giants' Pablo Sandoval reacts after hitting a home run during the fifth inning of Game 1 of baseball's World Series against the Detroit Tigers Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

San Francisco • The alcove of the San Francisco Bay that sits beyond the right-field fence here is named for Willie McCovey. The plaza out front honors Willie Mays. Five years ago, Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s career home run record at this ballpark.

Yet for all of that, AT&T Park is a graveyard for home runs. It ranked last in the majors in homers this season, with an average of .522 per game. The Giants design their team to make contact, not to hit for power. Kevin Elster hit three homers in the first game ever played here, in 2000, and no one else had done it since.

Then came the Giants’ Pablo Sandoval in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday, against the premier power pitcher of this generation, Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers. In a most unlikely setting, Sandoval made history, joining Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols as the only players to hit three home runs in a World Series game.

Ruth did it in 1926 and 1928, Jackson did it in 1977, and Pujols did it in Game 3 last October. Now Sandoval stands with the greats.

‘’I’m a fan, too, and when you see something like this, it makes you appreciate the gifts and talents that these players have,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “And for somebody to do what Pablo did tonight, you have to appreciate what he can do with the bat. I couldn’t be happier for him.”

For Sandoval, the barrage had been building since last Thursday, when he hooked a two-run homer down the right-field line in the fourth game of the National League Championship Series in St. Louis. It seemed to be a throwaway moment, a bit of scoreboard padding in the ninth inning of a blowout loss that put the Giants on the brink of elimination.

Nobody knew that the team would storm back in the NLCS, winning the last three games by a collective score of 20-1 as Sandoval went 5 for 12. He is hitting .370 in the postseason, and his four hits in Wednesday’s 8-3 victory were his first in World Series play. Against Texas two years ago, Sandoval played in just one game, going hitless in the Giants’ only loss.

‘’It means a lot,” he said. “2010, I was part of the World Series; I didn’t get to play much. I’m enjoying this World Series. I’m enjoying all my moments. You never know when it’s going to happen again.”

Sandoval’s demise that fall seemed strangely out of place. He was already a phenomenon by then, a jolly, roly-poly slugger nicknamed Kung Fu Panda who had hit .330 with 25 homers in 2009. Yet just when the fun really started for the Giants, the life of the party was a wallflower.

Sandoval’s weight — he is listed at 5-foot-11 and 240 pounds — had become part of the problem, and the Giants instructed him to improve his conditioning. He was better in 2011, and he made the All-Star team this summer with a late surge of votes from adoring San Francisco fans.

Sandoval rewarded their faith with a triple off Verlander in the All-Star Game, helping the NL secure home-field advantage in the World Series. When he met Verlander again in the first inning Wednesday, Sandoval smothered a 95-mph, chest-high, and bashed it over the center-field fence.

It was the 147th homer Verlander had allowed in his career — postseason included — but only the sixth off an 0-2 pitch. When Sandoval came up again, in the third, he got ahead, 2-0, and lashed another 95-mph fastball over the left-field wall for a two-run homer.

The third shot came in the fifth, when Sandoval drilled a 1-1 slider from reliever Al Alburquerque to straightaway center. Last year in Texas, Pujols had waited until the sixth inning for the first of his three home runs. This year, Sandoval matched the feat in only five.

“It’s hard to hit balls out of center field here, but this time of year it’s a little warmer, I guess, and the ball carries pretty well,” said Hensley Meulens, the Giants’ hitting coach. “But still, he hit two balls out to center field, and he hit a sinking fastball out to left. Nobody’s looking for a 2-0 fastball on the outside corner going down and away. But Pablo has the ability to do that. The barrel stayed flat through the zone and that allowed him to hit the ball out of the park.”

Only Ruth had ever come to bat in a World Series game having already hit three homers, and he walked in the final plate appearance of his three-homer game in 1926.

Sandoval said he was not trying to go deep when he batted in the seventh, content to smack a single to left-center off Jose Valverde.

“To tell you the truth, I just try to put the pitch on the barrel,” he said, adding later, “I don’t try to get too excited, because when you get excited, that’s when you get in trouble.”

Sandoval learned that lesson at an early age, and he has a scar to prove it. When he was a year old, Sandoval hit his family’s pet Doberman with a plastic bat, and the dog bit him under the left eye. He kept on swinging, of course, and was signed professionally at age 16.

A switch-hitter, Sandoval is known for exceptional bat control and an elaborate routine before he hits. He takes two hops in front of the batters’ box and kicks the end of his bat four times, twice with each foot. Then he gently taps the barrel of the bat against his helmet, twice, before brushing off the barrel with his hand.

He steps back into the box, then immediately jumps out, to the side, as if his feet had touched scalding water. Only after adjusting his batting gloves is he ready to get back in the box and face the pitcher.

Even so, Sandoval insisted after Game 1 that he is not superstitious — at least, not about his bat. He had used the same bat all postseason until breaking it before the third home run but said he did not worry about using a replacement.

“It’s not the bat. It’s you,” Sandoval said. “It’s everything you’ve got inside you. If you have faith, you have to believe in yourself.”