Thursday, October 25, 2012

World Series Game 1: When Pandas Attack

Babe Ruth and Albert Pujols, two of the greatest players in history, each of them hit three home runs in a single World Series game (Ruth did it twice, in fact). Most famously, Reggie Jackson did it too. He got his nickname on account of that accomplishment. Pablo Sandoval got his nickname from a cartoon panda bear. But last night, in Game 1 of the 2012 World Series, Sandoval became the fourth member of this exclusive club. It's been said before and it will be said again: You can't predict baseball.

Because baseball cannot be predicted, but people have an innate need to find order in the world and love a good story, there is a strong tendency to look at events, after they've happened, and attempt create a narrative that explains why they happened, even though there is often so little rhyme or reason (this is true not just of baseball, but life in general).

A player who by appearances is less talented finds success, and we are told it is because they have such heart and an incredible work ethic, as if the majority of Major League players got there through indifference and sloth. A star player strikes outs in a key moment or has a bad showing in a big game, and we are told it is because they cannot handle the pressure, as though somehow their prior achievements all came when there was nothing on the line.

If a team filled with what seems to be a collection of oddballs and pranksters wins, it is because they were loose, relaxed, carefree. If a team filled with that seems to be a collection of oddballs and pranksters loses, it is because they weren't focused and didn't care enough. The cart is put before the horse, because many people have such a hard time accepting randomness, luck, and coincidence.

Justin Verlander is the best pitcher on the planet, so who could have predicted that he would last just four innings in Game 1, in a pitchers' park no less, against a lineup with a reputation for mediocrity? Certainly not me. Yet, there it was, happening before our very eyes. Quickly, there was talk online about how Verlander isn't a good big game pitcher, after all, he didn't pitch well in Game 1 of the 2006 World Series, was only so so in the 2011 playoffs (after having one of the best regular seasons by a pitcher in recent memory that year), and he got shelled in the All-Star Game this summer. Gee, that's a mountain of evidence, I guess it's true, he doesn't pitch well in big games.

Except, with the Tigers trailing Chicago almost the entire year, just about every start he made in the season's last three weeks was a big one and he went 4-0 with a 0.64 ERA. And oh yeah, he gave up just 1 run while striking out 11 in Game 1 against Oakland then pitched a complete game shutout against them in the do-or-die Game 5 five days later, then gave up just one run against the Yankees last week.

Perhaps Verlander, like just about every pitcher in just about every start, missed his spot a few times, and this time the other team put good swings on those pitches. Maybe the Giants offense has actually been a lot better this season than in recent years and maybe they've been especially effective after acquiring new players at the trade deadline. Maybe sometimes shit just happens!

On the opposite of things, was a pitcher no one would have been surprised to see last just four innings, San Francisco's Barry Zito. Zito signed a huge contract with the Giants before the 2007 season, and has been almost completely a bust for them since then, average in his best seasons, among the least effective starters in baseball in his worst. He wasn't even included on the team's playoff roster in 2010, when the Giants won the World Series.

Last night's contest was billed by FOX as a duel between Cy Young winners (Zito took home the award in 2002, while with the A's). but knowledgeable baseball fans had to laugh, knowing there are probably not two Cy Young winners in baseball who were further apart in 2011 and 2012 than Verlander and Zito. So, to further prove you can't predict baseball, Zito allowed just one run while lasting 5.2 innings, and left to a roar of applause from the San Francisco faithful.

When Zito exited, he was replaced by another former Cy Young winner, Tim Lincecum (who won the award in both 2008 and 2009). Lincecum had a rough season and has been pitching mostly out of the bullpen during these playoffs. He's been successful in that role, and last night was no different. He pitched 2.1 shutout innings and looked great. I wonder though, was it wise to use their potentially most dominating reliever in a game they were already leading by five runs? Perhaps a bird in the hand is worth two and the bush, and it was better to lock down Game 1 than to worry about the future, but if San Francisco's Game 2 starter Madison Bumgarner struggles tonight (as he has recently), the Giants may regret not having Lincecum available.

You know who else won't be available? Detroit's Jose Valverde. Valverde was a great success in 2011, collecting 49 saves without blowing a single opportunity. He was far shakier in 2012 and in the playoffs he's been an utter disaster. Against Oakland he came apart in the 9th inning of Game 4, costing the Tigers the game (and putting their season in jeopardy, saved only by the grace of infamous playoff hack, Justin Verlander's complete game shutout in Game 5). In Game 1 of the ALCS against the Yankees, Valverde let a 4-run lead get away in the 9th, giving up home runs to noted titans of power, Ichiro Suzuki and Raul Ibanez.

He hadn't pitched since then, as Detroit skipper Jim Leyland felt he needed some time off to get his head and mechanics in better shape. Last night, with the Tigers already down five runs and likely behind to stay, was seen as an opportunity to let him build his confidence back up, so that he could be used in important situations later in the series. Instead, after striking out Lincecum, Valverde gave up four consecutive hits, allowing another two runs to score, and was pulled. Valverde is completely lost at the moment, his velocity and control both a mess. The next time he pitches in a Major League game had better be next spring, or Leyland should be drawn and quartered.

The ups and downs of various pitchers are important story lines to keep an eye on during the rest of the series, but Pablo Sandoval, the King Fu Panda, is the big story for now. His was probably the most unlikely 3 HR game in playoff history, when you consider that Sandoval hit just 12 home runs all season, there'd only been one 3 HR game in AT&T Park history (way back in 2000), and the home runs came against Verlander and Al Alburquerque (who hadn't allowed a home run in 56.2 innings over the last two years).

He had the best game of his life on the biggest stage there is. His name goes into the record books and he will now be mentioned with those of Ruth, Jackson, and Pujols, every time a player hits two home runs in a World Series game and steps to the plate, looking for a third. A performance like that (his third home run was a real "no effing way!" moment) is part of what makes baseball such a great game to follow.

Game 2 is tonight. Doug Fister will look to keep the Kung Fu Panda at bay, but the Tigers' bats are going to have to wake up if they're going to head back to Detroit with a win.

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