|Pablo Sandoval has come a long way since riding the pine in the 2010 World Series. (US Presswire)|
SAN FRANCISCO -- Forget tickets to Game 1 of the World Series. The toughest ticket of the night might have been a front-row seat in the Giants dugout when Pablo Sandoval stepped in for his final plate appearance.
Already, the Hall of Fame was zeroed in on one of his broken bats from earlier in the game.
Already, historians were researching the life and times of Babe Ruth. And Reggie Jackson. And Albert Pujols.
To that list, the only men who ever struck three home runs in one World Series game, add the unlikely name of Kung Fu Panda.
"Man, I still can't believe it," Sandoval said.
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"This is the best I've seen him all season long," Giants bench coach Ron Wotus said. "Games, batting practice ... he's locked in."
"It's hard enough to do it during the regular season," first baseman Aubrey Huff said of a three-dinger night. "But to do it against a pitcher who's at the top of his game, in his prime ... that's the amazing thing."
He missed five weeks in May and June with a broken hamate bone. He missed three weeks in July and August with a strained hamstring.
He is missing nothing now.
Not the 0 and 2 high cheese Tigers ace Justin Verlander threw in the first inning, which Sandoval re-directed over the center-field fence.
Not the 95 mph four-seamer Verlander fired away and on the black in the third inning, which Sandoval reached out and pushed over the left-field fence.
Not the pedestrian slider reliever Al Alburquerque tried in the fifth, which Sandoval blasted over the VISA advertisement on the center-field fence.
For the Tigers, it was pure Panda-moanium.
"You can't sit up here and say what he did tonight was a fluke," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. "I mean, it was unbelievable. The guy had one of those World Series nights they'll be talking about for years. So I tip my cap to him."
By the time Sandoval faced reliever Jose Valverde -- oh no, not him again -- in the seventh, you should have seen the Giants dugout.
"I think everybody was watching," Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt said. "He could have made history."
Could have? How about, already did?
He joined Pujols (Game 5 last year), Jackson (1977) and Ruth (twice, in 1926 and again in 1928) as the only men in baseball history to clout three homers in one World Series game. He turned the Fall Classic into Sesame Street: Which of these names is not like the other?
But that's how this evening was going. Even alongside these Ruthian legends, the way he was going, you felt like Sandoval, 26, had every chance to smash a fourth home run. It was like the guy was playing backyard Wiffle ball, and the neighbor's driveway was a home run.
"We were going for a four-homer night," Affeldt said, chuckling. "I was hoping for a water shot [into McCovey Cove].
"Instead, he got a lousy single."
Yeah, a hard-hit rocket straight up the middle.
"If he gets under that one, it's out, too," Huff said.
Only once since AT&T Park opened in 2000 has a player blasted three home runs in one game: The Dodgers' Kevin Elster, in the very first game ever played here. Barry Bonds never hit three in one game here ... and he was on the cream and the clear. Panda is fueled only by eucalyptus leaves, or whatever it is that he eats.
Wait. Touchy subject there. Because there was a time when the Giants feared he was going to eat his way out of the league.
Signed as an amateur free agent in 2003, Sandoval, listed at 5-11, 240 pounds, came into the league with one of those rare, cartoon bodies like Kirby Puckett that doesn't exactly scream "athlete." Yet his first full season was a summer-long party in AT&T Park, in 2009, when he finished second in the National League with a .330 batting average.
Just as memorably, he comically and awkwardly tumbled into home plate during one freeze-frame moment that summer that starter Barry Zito dubbed him "Kung Fu Panda."
A cult hero was born, as well as a cottage industry of panda hats and masks that are conveniently available for sale both at the park and around town in Giants' team stores.
Always, he could hit. But in 2010, that big old body seemed to collect two pounds for every one bad-ball double he'd rip, and by the postseason he had played himself out of the lineup. Juan Uribe replaced him at third base.
When the Giants won the World Series that season, he got exactly three at-bats in those five games. At Texas, as designated hitter, in Game 3. He went 0 for 3, with one strikeout.
He was the forgotten Panda. And he was all but ordered by the Giants to stay near San Francisco that winter -- he's from Venezuela -- and stick close to a personal chef/nutritionist.
"He got humbled," hitting coach Bam Bam Meulens said (these Giants are full of cartoon characters). "He didn't play in the most important games. He didn't play against Philadelphia [in the Game 6 clincher in the NL Championship Series]. He didn't play in the last game of the World Series."
"He said, 'That's not going to happen to me,'" Meulens said.
So Sandoval worked more, ate less and, all the while, remained the fun-loving Panda with the 1,000-watt smile San Franciscans had come to know and love.
"He has a lot of fun, regardless," Affeldt said. "He enjoys watching ballgames. He enjoys playing. I don't ever remember him not cheering, laughing, clapping."
Now, he's back in the mix and more dangerous than ever. Though he hit only 12 homers this season, he's already socked six during the playoffs. During his past 10 games, he's hitting .429 with six homers and 12 RBI.
"I didn't get a chance to play too much" in 2010, Sandoval said. "I'm enjoying this World Series. I'm enjoying all of my moments. You never know when it's going to happen again."
He's streaky, and what makes him especially dangerous is that he's a fantastic bad-ball hitter.
"Seems like he's one of those guys who is a better hitter on bad pitches," infielder Marco Scutaro said. "He can reach a ball up here and he can reach a ball down-and-in.
"He's like Vladimir Guerrero. His strike zone is, like, big."
Right now, he's just the way the Giants prefer: His hitting zone is big, and his body is, relatively speaking, small.
"He's very skinny right now," Meulens said, not even attempting to keep a straight face.
As one of the most memorable World Series games in history played out, Meulens spoke with Sandoval in the dugout a couple of times, and the hitting coach said those talks were "pretty serious."
"We talked a lot about creating separation at the plate and not jumping out at the ball," Meulens said.
Translation: When Sandoval loads -- shifts his weight back -- and then moves forward with his stride, one key is to keep his weight even instead of shifting it all forward as he steps into the pitch.
"When he can do that, he's dangerous," Meulens said.
Is he ever.
"This guy could be a .350 hitter," Huff said. "The problem is, he can hit all of these pitches out of the zone.
"The thing is to let Pablo be Pablo. Sometimes, he gets a little too amped up. But tonight, everything was smooth and under control."
Things stay that way for the Panda, this is going to be one bear of a series for the Tigers.