SAN FRANCISCO — The World Series is supposed to shock and stun us, instantly reverse our expectations and bring almost inconceivable possibilities onto center stage. Sometimes, that happens instantly in Game 1. But the 2012 World Series, after the underdog Giants stomped Detroit, 8-3, looks like it wants to top ’em all.
The Tigers’ near-legend, Justin Verlander, not only lost, 8-3 to the Giants, but got bombed, lasting just four innings in which he gave up five runs and staggered through 98 pitches against a San Francisco lineup that didn’t look one bit impressed. The book on this series was that Verlander, who won 24 games in ’11 and captured his third strikeout crown this year, would be to the key to the battle.
Maybe he will be. But not in the way that was expected. Verlander has a nemesis. Who knew something as cuddly as a Kung Fu Panda could be so dangerous?
In the All-Star Game, Verlander faced Pablo Sandoval, the Giants’ No. 3 hitter, for the first time in their careers. Sandoval slashed a three-run triple as Verlander was hammered for five runs in his one inning and took the loss that gave the National League home-field advantage in this series. Sandoval faced Verlander twice more in this game and increased his output each time.
In the first inning, he hit a chin-high 0-2 fastball for a solo home run to center field. In their next meeting, Sandoval slashed a low-away fastball for a two-run homer that was sliced to left field for a 4-0 Giants lead. Before the night was over, the popular Panda had three home runs in a World Series game, joining just three other men in that category: Babe Ruth (twice), Reggie Jackson and, last year, Albert Pujols. If Sandoval and Verlander meet later in this series, nothing less than a five-run homer will suffice.
Sandoval also reopened a worrisome chapter in Verlander’s past. In the first eight postseason starts of his career, Verlander was a consistent disappointment, trying too hard and amassing an ugly 5.57 ERA. In Game 1 of the ’06 World Series, after being rookie of the year, he lost lopsidedly to five-game-winner Anthony Reyes, obscure then and long retired now.
Only this October has Verlander blossomed into a postseason monster with three dominant starts. If his bad old big-game ways have returned, with his All-Star Game loss as another exhibit for the prosecution, then the whole tone of this series changes. Verlander’s next effort may be a shutout when the series goes to Detroit. But now the whole range of outcomes is on the table. And the all-fields-hitting Giants know they can get under his skin.
Verlander tried not to make excuses. “I just didn’t execute tonight, especially to Pablo,” he said. But the Giants handled him so well that he needed psychological cover. Pitching coach Jeff Jones visited the mound just before his second gopher ball to Sandoval.
“‘What are you doing out here? All you did was give the crowd time to get riled up,’ ” Verlander said he told Jones, insisting that both were joking around. But there’s truth in jest. Verlander conceded: “I was ready to make the next pitch. I’m the type that never wants the pitching coach to come out.
“All night I was a little out of sync. Was it the [eight-day] layoff [between starts]? I’m a creature of habit. But you can’t be perfect every time. Who cares? It’s the World Series.”
A World Series always looks for symbols — of victory and of defeat — for players who are emblems of one team that succeeds and foes who fail. The Giants, if only for one game, couldn’t have asked for a bigger (rim shot) star than Sandoval, the Round Mound of Pound. The Tigers’ Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera was supposed to be the best Venezuelan third baseman in this series, but Sandoval has already given him second billing.
If we grant just one assumption — that Sandoval will not hit three home runs in every game — then the most important news from this contest was the disaster that befell Verlander, who, along with Cabrera and Prince Fielder, personifies the Tigers’ three-superstar team.
Verlander’s reputation has grown so large in the past two seasons, with a 24-5 season that won him both Cy Young Award and MVP fame in ’11, that it’s easy to forget his early years were sometimes erratic. He inspired talk of greatness, but the word “disappointment” was used at times.
Few players have, from early in their careers, had as much sense of a personal baseball destiny as Verlander. Usually, it motivates and drives him. But sometimes, on the game’s biggest stages, it may have pushed him to set impossible goals or even add pressure in already tense settings. In mid-2009, he was coming off an 11-17 season. I asked him if he had any goals, thinking he’d say 20 wins or 200 strikeouts.
“To be in the Hall of Fame,” Verlander said.
He said it without vanity, just sincere ambition and enormous self-confidence. Then he talked about all the improvements he hoped to make in his pitching. I’d never heard any player, much a 26-year-old with merely very good success, aim so high and apologize for it not a whit.
Since then, Verlander has been so spectacular that, at 29, he really is more than halfway to Cooperstown. How can you be so great and yet still face high places that remain so treacherous and hostile? Are these highlight nights, starting an All-Star Game or the first game of a World Series, the places where Verlander wants to shine so brightly that he somehow dims his own star? Or is there just one large Panda who has his number and has changed the whole arc of Verlander’s season and perhaps the Tigers’, too.
A World Series arrives in installments. This first one was a complete shock. That usually means more amazements are on the way.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/