SAN FRANCISCO — He is perhaps the happiest of a jovial bunch of San Francisco Giants. That Pablo Sandoval pumped his right arm in the air and grinned on each of his treks around the base paths Wednesday night delighted all and surprised none. Smile, the man whom all of San Francisco calls “Panda” seems to say, because baseball is a fun, crazy game, and playing it this deep into October is to be celebrated and cherished, particularly if you make history.
The last of those fist-in-the-air trots Wednesday, in Game 1 of the World Series, came as an already delirious AT&T Park came unglued. There is a tiny list of players who have clubbed three home runs in a single World Series game, and before Wednesday it included only formidable sluggers, indisputable Hall of Famers. Babe Ruth did it twice. Reggie Jackson did it in 1977. Albert Pujols did it a year ago.
And Pablo Sandoval did it Wednesday night. The Giants, a decided underdog, suffocated the Detroit Tigers in an 8-3 victory that was defined by Sandoval’s three swings — a solo shot in the first, a two-run blast in the third, and another solo laser in the fifth. The regular season home run totals of the company Sandoval now keeps: 714 for Ruth, 563 for Jackson, 475 for Pujols. In five years in the majors, Sandoval has 76.
“I don’t try to hit one,” Sandoval said. “I don’t try to hit two. I don’t try to hit three. . . . I’m just happy it was this way.”
Happy for perhaps the most surprising outburst of power in World Series history, an enthralling 4-for-4 performance that included a single in his fourth at-bat. On another night, there would have been other fine story lines from which to choose. San Francisco left-hander Barry Zito was subtly brilliant — 85 mph and barely hittable over 52 / 3 innings in which he gave up one run. Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander, pitching for the first time in eight days, was surprisingly vulnerable.
“He was definitely rusty,” Tigers Manager Jim Leyland said. “There’s no question about it.”
Sandoval might have chased Verlander himself, but he left that to Zito, whose two-out RBI single in the fourth built the Giants’ lead to 5-0. Verlander, who entered the series 3-0 with a 0.74 ERA this postseason, lasted just four innings, his shortest outing since the first game of the 2011 American League Championship Series against Texas.
But the raucousness at AT&T Park came from Sandoval’s bat. The Giants have won four consecutive postseason games by a combined score of 28-4. But for the first time this October, they have a lead in a series — and they have it because Sandoval unleashed on the Tigers’ previously unassailable ace.
“Going up against Verlander,” Zito said, “I was coming out here expecting a game that was going to be 1-0, or 2-0.”
The reason the Giants have home-field advantage in the World Series is because the National League won the All-Star Game. The central characters in the decisive first inning of that game? Verlander, the AL starter, and Sandoval, who hit a three-run triple off him. It was, before Wednesday, Sandoval’s only at-bat against Verlander.
Throw out that single at-bat in a glorified exhibition game, and Sandoval’s Game 1 performance was hardly fathomable. When the Giants won the World Series two years ago, he was something of a forgotten soul. He had broken out as a rookie in 2009, hitting .330, and already pushed thousands of Bay Area baseball fans to buy black-and-white panda hats.
But even as the Giants jelled in 2010, Sandoval slumped. In almost the same number of plate appearances, his on-base-plus-slugging percentage dropped from .943 to .732. The Giants beat the Rangers in a five-game World Series. Sandoval appeared just once.
“You got an up-and-down career,” Sandoval said. “It’s not every year that’s going to be up.”
Sandoval righted himself in 2011, and was a key cog for the Giants during this regular season. As the Giants overcame their three-games-to-one deficit in the NLCS, Sandoval, entrenched as the third-place hitter, made up for a slumping Buster Posey. Wednesday became the sixth straight game in which he drove in at least one run.
The first run came on just the third pitch he saw. With two outs and the bases empty in the first, Verlander started Sandoval with a fastball, then got him to foul off a change-up. Verlander, who hadn’t given up a home run on an 0-2 pitch all season, then unleashed a 95-mph fastball up in the zone.
“He didn’t get it high enough,” Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt said. “Pablo, he’s not afraid to swing the bat. He’ll swing in any count.”
Sandoval clobbered it, just to the right of straightaway center. The first fist pump of the night occurred as he looked into the dugout rounding second. The Giants were on their way.
“The guy can hit,” Bochy said.
In the third, Sandoval got another chance because San Francisco started a rally on Angel Pagan’s two-out bouncer toward third — which hit the base and bounded away for a double. Two batters later, with another run in, Verlander fell behind Sandoval 2-0, warranting a visit from pitching coach Jeff Jones.
The chat did no good. Verlander threw another 95-mph heater, and the switch-hitting Sandoval drove it the opposite way, to left. The two-run shot put the Giants up 4-0. The Tigers, and Verlander, were stunned.
By the time Sandoval came up again, reliever Al Alburquerque was on the mound. He gave up the most majestic blast, another shot to center. Barry Bonds, the all-time home run king, played eight years as a Giant at AT&T Park. He never hit three homers here.
“It’s part of your life you have to enjoy,” Sandoval said. “It’s not every day.”
There are smiles all around San Francisco these days, starting with the Panda, who made them contagious.