SAN FRANCISCO - The ball went screaming toward the centerfield seats, you could almost hear the seams crying, and as early signs go, this was like waking up to a buzzard outside your window. Justin Verlander, on an 0-2 count to Pablo Sandoval, had just brought a pitch that would skin the hair off an alley cat, a fastball high and in, 95 m.p.h.
You and me, we don't think about swinging at such a missile; we think about ducking, diving, maybe crying. Sandoval, who is not quite 6 feet tall, yet tips the scales at close to 300 pounds, is not you or me. The slugger with two-toned hair who has become an RBI machine in San Francisco's postseason - and whose bat was kissed by the gods Wednesday night - got wood on that pitch and turned it around in a hurry. It landed in the crowd. And the Giants - like that scene in "The Untouchables" when the bad guys kill their first G-man and leave him in an elevator - hung a warning sign on the Tigers in the very first inning of this 2012 World Series:
BOX SCORE: Giants 8, Tigers 3
Ouch. The Tigers, after an 8-3 drubbing, wake up in a one-game hole this morning, and, if they're going to win this title, it won't be through intimidation. They sent Verlander, the best pitcher in baseball, to the mound fully rested - and between bad bounces and Sandoval's power, he was done after four innings, his shortest effort in more than two years, having thrown 98 pitches, surrendered five runs and looked nothing like the legend he has become.
"He really didn't pitch, obviously, the way he's capable of pitching," manager Jim Leyland said afterward. "He just didn't have a good game, and the Giants hitters did."
Ouch. How atypical was this? Nobody this year had hit an 0-2 Verlander pitch for a home run. Nobody.
Sandoval did it in his first at-bat.
The same Sandoval who, in the third inning, took another 95-m.p.h. Verlander fastball and parked it in the leftfield stands, a two-run homer.
The same Sandoval, who, in the fifth inning, went low for an Al Alburquerque pitch and sent THAT ONE over the fence for a solo shot, his third home run of the night - tying Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols as the only men to ever do that in a World Series game.
"Where the pitch is going, I just try to swing that way," Sandoval said between smiles after the game. Maybe there was no stopping him Wednesday. Maybe fate had deemed him a wrecking machine.
But if Sandoval was destined to be a hero, then Verlander could not be. And he wasn't.
And that has Tigers fans worried most.
An incredible inning
"It's disappointing, very disappointing," said Verlander, who admitted he couldn't place his fastball the way he usually did. His catcher, Alex Avila, said there were nights like that, even with the great Verlander, but sometimes "you manage it and can still win a game. â?¦ We just weren't able to make the adjustment tonight."
It didn't help that the game seemed haunted early on. Take the Giants' third inning. It was going along fine, two easy outs, until Angel Pagan hit a chopper that struck the third-base bag, ricocheted oddly, and left Miguel Cabrera watching as the ball slow rolled to leftfield. Pagan had a double, the crowd was on its feet, and the inning continued.
"I told myself, reset," Verlander said.
But Marco Scutaro, seemingly indefatigable, fouled off pitch after pitch from Verlander until finally slicing a single, driving in Pagan.
And up came Sandoval.
Verlander fell behind him, 2-0. And then, in a visit that will be more talked about than Ahmadinejad at the U.N., pitching coach Jeff Jones walked to the mound. Verlander glared at him the way a poor farmer glares at an approaching bank collector.
You don't generally come out to Justin Verlander, not in the third inning, not when he's only down, 2-0. Jones wanted to calm his pitcher. Get him to take a breath. The two men ended up exchanging smiles.
"I told him all you did was get the crowd all riled up," Verlander said later, allowing a smile.
But whatever else Jones said, it didn't help. The very next pitch Sandoval rocketed to the seats, and the fate of the game pretty much went with it.
The other starter
Remember, the Tigers were counting on Verlander for a lot in this opener. Everyone knew the Giants were operating on liquid mojo. How do you tame a team that has stared death in the face six times this postseason and six times spat in its face? The Giants had won their last three games by a combined score of 20-1. Verlander wasn't only supposed to stop the Giants' batters, he was supposed to slay the shadows behind them as well. If he could do that, steal this opener on the road, it would not only give the Tigers a chance to wrap up the World Series at home, it would put some sandpaper to San Francisco's seemingly unstoppable streak.
Instead, the Giants enter Game 2 tonight as confident as could be, having soundly beaten the Tigers' ace and with their own ace, Matt Cain, not even scheduled to pitch until Saturday night.
Which brings us to the other starter of Game 1, Barry Zito.
Zito was a novel all by himself. Ten years ago, he won the Cy Young Award with Oakland. They nicknamed him "Captain Quirk." He was indestructible, made all his starts, and was one of those pitchers who defies convention, the son of Nat King Cole's arranger, a California guy into yoga and zen. He was a huge prize as a free agent, and when decision time came, he walked over the bridge and signed, at the time, the richest pitcher's contract in the history of baseball ($126 million).
It has hung like an albatross ever since. He never really regained his form, was left off the Giants' 2010 World Series roster, and, until this season, was generally seen as a big-money bust.
But in Game 5 of the NLCS, he stepped up and pitched his biggest game in years, going 7/62/37 shutout innings. And here he was, Wednesday night, on the mound, his first Series appearance ever at age 34.
Good story? He might as well have had the word "REDEMPTION" stitched across the back of his jersey.
"Just the opportunity was magical," Zito said when this was over. And all night long, he pitched in stark contrast to Verlander. While the Tigers' ace threw his smoke, Zito was dropping 75- to 85-m.p.h. pitches, breaking balls, change-ups. There was little heat off his pitches, but the Tigers couldn't do anything with them. He blanked Detroit over five innings, and added insult to injury by smacking an RBI single off Verlander, the fifth and final run he'd surrender before leaving.
NIGHTENGALE: Giants' Game 1 win defies logic
That's how you know it's not your night.
Zito lasted until the top of the sixth. He gave up just one run, and exited to cheers of "BARRY! BARRY!" The 2002 Cy Young winner had just outpitched the 2011 version.
It was a whale of a story.
Just not the one Detroit fans wanted.
And then Papa Grande
But OK. Verlander - who is now 0-3 in World Series games with a 7.20 ERA, but let's try and forget about that, shall we? - wasn't going to pitch every night. The Tigers must now regroup and do all they can to win this evening, because an 0-2 hole with Cain pitching Game 3 is not what you call a "desirable" position.
There are other reasons for concern. Twice in Game 1 the Tigers were robbed of base hits - maybe extra-base hits - by a diving catch from the Giants leftfielder Gregor Blanco. Beautiful plays. The kind of defense you expect in a World Series.
Contrast that with two balls hit to Delmon Young, playing leftfield only to keep his usual DH bat in the lineup. Young tried to make a throw on Zito's single and honestly, it was like one of those blooper reels. It hit the dirt so fast, I think it killed an unsuspecting animal. Heaven forbid the game hinges on Young making a perfect throw to the plate. I'm warning you right now: Close your eyes.
Also: The Tiger hitters were not exactly rusty, but not exactly sharp, either.
ANALYSIS: How much did six-day layoff hurt Tigers?
And then there's Jose Valverde. Leyland wisely slid him in where nobody would much care about the outcome - it was already 6-1 - yet minutes later, it was 8-1 and Valverde was leaving. He faced five batters, gave up four hits and did nothing to suggest he can be used again this postseason. "He just wasn't good," Leyland admitted.
Oh. And Joaquin Benoit came in and threw a wild pitch.
One other bad sign? The last time the Tigers played a World Series, they had been off for a week and played a St. Louis team that had just finished a tough seven-game championship series. The score of that Game 1: 7-2, Cardinals. Frighteningly like the 8-3 final Wednesday.
The Tigers lost that Series in five games.
Well, gee, I think that's enough for one column, no? Tip your hat to Sandoval and hope he used it all up on Wednesday. Detroit fans should console themselves with the fact that one loss is still one loss, Verlander will get another chance, and, come on, let's face it, the laws of nature suggest the Giants have to cool down at some point, right?
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Read the original story: Albom: Incredible inning topples Tigers in Game 1