Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 25, 2012

Forgotten Men In 2010 Are The Heroes Of Game One

Victory in Game One does not make a World Series champion, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Whether the Giants ultimately win or lose the Series, there’s no question that the party by the Bay, last seen in full swing in a downpour following Game 7 of the NLCS, continued on Wednesday night. As the delighted home fans waved their orange towels, San Francisco rolled to an 8-3 win over the Detroit Tigers, thanks to a pair of unlikely heroes. Much has been made of how quickly San Francisco’s management took apart and then rebuilt a winning team following its 2010 championship. Wednesday night’s starting lineup included just one player, catcher Buster Posey, who started for the Giants in Game One of the Series two October’s ago. But hidden in that statistic are twin stories of redemption for Barry Zito and Pablo Sandoval, the pitching and batting stars on Wednesday night.

Both Zito and Sandoval were members of the Giants in 2010, but management wanted them nowhere near a starting lineup. The Giants thought they were getting a dominant pitcher in his prime when they signed Zito to a 7-year, $126 million free agent contract prior to the 2007 season. At the time it was the richest deal ever for a pitcher, and brought the then 28-year old across the Bay from the Oakland A’s. But Zito, who won 102 games for the Athletics over seven seasons, failed to post a winning record in any of his first five years with the Giants. His 9-14 record in 2010 was fairly typical, and when San Francisco announced its postseason roster Zito wasn’t on it.

Sandoval at least made the 25-man roster for the Giants’ 2010 playoff run. But after batting .345 as a mid-season call up from the minors in 2008 and .330 in his first full year in the big leagues in 2009, he had slumped badly in 2010, hitting only .268. Concerned about the conditioning of their portly (to put it kindly) third baseman, the Giants relegated Sandoval to a supporting role in the playoffs. He appeared in two of the four Division Series games against Atlanta, and three of the six NLCS games against the Phillies. After going just 3 for 14 in those contests, Sandoval was inserted into the lineup for just a single game of the World Series, going hitless in three at-bats. With absolutely no help from their highly paid one-time ace and next to no help from their overweight infielder, the Giants rolled to their first championship since moving west in 1958.

Zito’s struggles on the mound continued in 2011, when an injury forced him to the disabled list for the first time in his career. By the time he returned he had been replaced in the rotation by Ryan Vogelsong. Zito became a very well paid spot starter and occasional reliever, eventually posting yet another losing record and, at 5.87, the highest ERA of his career. For his part Sandoval rebounded in 2011, after a determined off-season effort to lose weight and improve his conditioning. But he too missed more than a quarter of the season after suffering a broken right wrist in late April.

By the time the 2012 season began, most Giants fans were likely wishing that Barry Zito would just go away. Fans understandably expect big contracts to yield big performances, and over five seasons Zito has heard far more jeers than cheers as he trudged off the mound at AT&T Park after yet another subpar effort. But in his first outing in April he tossed a complete game, shutting out the Colorado Rockies while yielding just four hits. While he was not the dominant pitcher he had been while pitching on the Oakland side of the Bay Bridge, he did go 15-8, posting his first winning record in a San Francisco uniform. If not enough to make fans forget all of the disappointments of the previous five seasons, it still represented a significant contribution to the Giants’ drive to the NL West title, especially in light of the well-recorded struggles of Tim Lincecum.

Sandoval meanwhile again missed a large chunk of the season when he suffered the exact same injury he had in 2011, this time to his left wrist. But he returned in time to make the National League All-Star team for the second year in a row, as rabid Giants fans swamped the fan voting in a late push that made Sandoval one of three Giants to win starting roles. Sandoval then silenced the critics when he hit the first bases loaded triple in All-Star game history in the first winning, helping to spark the National League to victory in the mid-summer exhibition.

Given the starting assignment in Game 4 of the NLDS, Zito needed 76 pitches to record just eight outs, and was pulled before the end of the third inning with the score tied. But the Giants went on to win, one of three straight elimination game victories over Cincinnati that advanced San Francisco to the NLCS. Trailing three games to one and again facing elimination, manager Bruce Bochy again handed the ball to his 34-year old veteran. In a game that Zito would call the biggest win of his career, he blanked the defending champion Cardinals for 7 2/3 innings to keep San Francisco’s season alive.

Zito may want to rethink his description of the NLCS victory, because on Wednesday he went up against the powerful Detroit lineup, knowing the reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander was pitching for the Tigers. Through 5 2/3 innings he outpitched Verlander, scattering six hits and allowing just a single run. When manager Bochy came out of the dugout signaling for Lincecum to come on in relief in the 6th inning, the capacity crowd came to their feet to give Zito a long and loud ovation.

By the time Zito surrendered his one run in the 6th, the Giants had Game One well in hand, with Sandoval providing the batting heroics as he wrote himself into the Great Game’s record books. In the ballpark that yielded the fewest home runs in the majors this season, Sandoval took Verlander deep in the 1st and 3rd innings, then added a third homer off of reliever Al Albuquerque in the 5th. With that Sandoval, who was given his nickname of “Kung Fu Panda” by none other than Zito, joined Babe Ruth (twice), Reggie Jackson, and Albert Pujols as the only players to hit three home runs in a World Series game. Sandoval batted .333 in the NLDS and .310 in the NLCS; with a 7th inning single wrapping up a perfect 4 for 4 night in Game One, Sandoval’s 2012 postseason batting average is now .370.

Victory in Game One does not make a World Series champion. But for Barry Zito and Pablo Sandoval, it surely had to turn 2010 into a very, very, distant memory.

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Responses

  1. That’s one of the great things about the post-season. You never know who the heroes (or goats) are going to be.


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