SAN FRANCISCO Just a few seconds before the first pitch ofevery game, Pablo Sandoval writes something in the dirt behind third base, heswipes it away with a brush of his hand, then he flings a cloud of red dirt inthe air.
Shortstop Brandon Crawford knows the ritual well. Hes neverasked about it. Neither has left fielder Gregor Blanco or second baseman MarcoScutaro.
Man, hes got so much ... stuff, Scutaro said. He isdoing something all the time.
What Sandovaldid in Game 1 of the World Series Wednesday night was something transformative,something historic and maybe a bit mystical. He wrote his name alongside BabeRuth, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols -- heavy hitters, all -- as the onlyplayers in history to hit three home runs in a World Series game.
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It cannot, will not be swiped away.
Man, I still can't believe it, said Sandoval, after hishaymakers knocked out Justin Verlander in the Giants tone-setting, 8-3 victoryat AT&T Park. I'm enjoying this World Series. I'm enjoying all mymoments. You never know when it's going to happen again.It means alot for my family, my friends, my teammates. They all pull together to behere.
Sandoval did not have these moments two years ago. He wentfrom starting third baseman to chief towel waver, untrusted to pick up a groundball because he had gotten too heavy. He was out of breath after taking ahalf-dozen grounders. Giants manager Bruce Bochy pulled the plug after Game 2of that NL Division Series against Atlanta, moving Juan Uribe to third base andputting a forgotten, injury-marred veteran, Edgar Renteria, at shortstop.
That move worked out pretty okay. Renteria became the only WorldSeries MVP in Giants history, after all.
Now Sandoval is the leader in the clubhouse for that honor.He homered to center off a searing fastball from Justin Verlander in the first inning, shocked theTigers ace by taking an outside fastball the opposite way for a two-run shot inthe third, then backspun a slider from Al Alburquerque over the center field wallin the fifth to become the first player in World Series history to homer in eachof his first three at-bats in Game 1.
A single in his final at-bat completed a 4-for-4 game andhis 13 total bases stands alone in second place, behind Pujols (14, on threehomers and a double) for the most in a World Series game.
He killed the whole mood, joked left-hander JeremyAffeldt. I mean, if youre going to hit three home runs, you dont hit thesingle fourth.
Sandoval already looked to be locking in this postseason. Hehit three homers in the first two rounds, and in the Giants six eliminationvictories, he was 10-for-24 (.417) with two doubles, two home runs and fiveRBIs.
Sandoval had produced when the Giants most needed him. Andagainst Verlander, a pitcher who was more terminator than man, Sandoval pickedhim up and flung him into a vat of molten steel.
Thats the most amazing thing, Giants pinch hitter AubreyHuff said. Youre talking about a guy whos the best on the planet right now.He took a pitch up and in, hard, and hit it out to center. I mean, how did hehit it? I can see how youd get lucky and pull it, but to dead center? Itshard to do that. I dont know many guys in the league who can hit all off that.The first one I think of is maybe Barry Bonds in his heyday.
"Im astonished,really. We all were.
Not even Bonds hit three home runs in a game at AT&TPark. It hadnt been done since the very first regular-season game here, 13years ago, when the Dodgers Kevin Elster parked a trio and everyone assumedthe little waterfront stadium would play like a bandbox.
Well, that didnt happen. In fact, the Giants hit just 31home runs in 81 home games all season -- far and away the fewest by a home teamin the major leagues. No Giant had hit three home runs at home since Bonds in1994, at Candlestick Park.
Barry never did it? Now thats impressive, Giants hittingcoach Hensley Bam Bam Meulens said. This is not a home run park, but it waswarmer today than usual.
With the 5 p.m. start, the early innings are usually thetime when the Giants take batting practice before a night game. The ball alwayscarries better before the temperatures drop. And Verlander was providing powerwith his upper-90s fastball.
Sandoval managed to backspin pitches off the barrel, andphysics did the rest -- even if Verlander, wow-face and all, couldnt quitebelieve it.
It was extremely impressive, Verlander said. I wish Ihadn't contributed.
Sandovals home run in the first inning came on an 0-2 pitchthat Verlander tried to run above Sandovals hands. He didnt get it highenough. It was just the fourth home run Verlander had allowed on an 0-2 pitchin his career; he hadnt given one up all season.
Verlander entered with a 3-0 record, a 0.74 ERA in threepostseason starts and an unbeatable air. Two years ago, the Texas RangersCliff Lee had that same aura, along with a 3-0 record and 0.75 ERA in threepostseason starts.
The Giants won Game 1 then, and they won it now.
This was a big hyped game with Justin, probably a lot ofpressure on him, Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. But I don't think it hadanything to do with the pressure. His fastball command was not good, he got out of sync, hegot on fast forward.He just did not pitch well tonight, it's that simple.
But I go back, I want to start by giving the Giant hitterscredit. I would not take anything away from them.
Hes an outstanding hitter, obviously, and he just had oneof those nights where anything we threw, he hit, Leyland said. I think youcertainly tip your hat to what Sandoval did tonight.You can't sit up hereand say what he did tonight was a fluke. I mean, it was unbelievable. Theguy had one of those unbelievable World Series nights that they'll be talkingabout for years.So I tip my hat to him.
Sandoval hit just 12 home runs in a regular season interrupted by injuries. Hemissed six weeks with a fractured hamate bone in his left hand. Its a boo-boothat a player can only have once -- unless you are a switch hitter, and youbreak the other hand. It was Sandovals misfortune, and his penchant forresting the meaty part of his palm on the barrel, that led to hamate fracturesin each of the past two seasons.
Then there was the hamstring injury that sent him to the DLafter the All-Star break, when he did the splits while receiving a throw atfirst base.
It was frustrating, disheartening. But not more than 2010,when his issue wasnt injury but a perceived lack of commitment. He didntstart any of the three postseason series clinchers, and his World Seriesexperience consisted of three hitless at-bats as the DH in Game 3.
He didnt play in the four most important games of theyear, Meulens said. When he didnt play in the World Series, he said, 'Thatsnot going to happen again.'
Sandoval is heavier than last season, but better conditionedthan before. In a sense, though, hes never been bigger.
Hes skinny for me right now, said Meulens, elicitinglaughs.
Said Giants manager Bruce Bochy: Well, I'm happy forhim. I'm sure he looks back at that time, that experience he had, and I'msure he wasn't too happy with how it went there in 2010. He looks verydetermined to show that not just us, everybody, what a great talent he is.
We've always thought a lot of Pablo, but at that time wehad to make a change. But we need him. I think the time from hissurgery, he's gotten stronger the last month and is swinging the bat the way weknow he can.
But three home runs in a World Series game? The frenzieddugout reaction said it all.
The second and third one, I think it was more shock that hehit another one, shortstop Brandon Crawford said. So each time it seemed tobuild and build. But hell hit a slider off his front foot and put it in thewater. So nothing he does surprises me.
Buster Posey had the best view of anyone from the on-deckcircle.
Just the other day I was telling somebody I couldntbelieve itd been done three times in the World Series, Posey said. You lookup and 24 hours later, I was right there to see it. I had a great look at it.
And what did Posey see?
Well, I looked in the dugout to see all their faces, and Iwas watching Pablo enjoy the moment, taking in his reaction and hisexpression, Posey said. It was great. I mean, Pablos always happy. But hewas really, really happy.
Meulens was most happy about the second homer, on aVerlander pitch away after Sandoval didnt bite on two change-ups in the dirt.
Hes got an uncanny ability to hit the ball in all ninequadrants of the zone, Meulens said. The ball down in the zone is the one hehits the hardest, the one we want him to focus on. But when hes locked in, hecan hit anything. That was as far down and away as you can go and Pablo stayedon it.
Sandoval cracked his bat on a foul ball during his thirdat-bat. So he retired that one and picked up a new one. He used the new bat totake a right turn on Alburquerque. The Hall of Fame gladly took possession ofthe broken one, which he used to hit his two homers off Verlander.
Yeah, man.I use that bat all my postseason, saidSandoval, who usually employs more bats than the Carlsbad Caverns. I don't gettoo much superstition.There's more bats in there to swing. It's notthe bat. It's you.
It's everything you've got inside you.