SAN FRANCISCO — The legend of the Kung Fu Panda just got bigger.
Bigger than the Golden Gate Bridge.
Bigger than Bruce Bochy’s head.
Bigger than the Panda’s waistline.
Pablo Sandoval hit home runs in his first three at-bats of the first game of the World Series Wednesday night. The Giants beat Justin Verlander and the Tigers, 8-3.
And so the magic carpet ride of the 2012 Giants continues. They can do no wrong. They fell behind the Cincinnati Reds, 2-0, and won three straight. They fell behind the St. Louis Cardinals, 3-1, and won three straight. Wednesday night, they routed the best pitcher in baseball for five runs and six hits over four innings.
And the Panda was right there in the middle of it. Three homers. Just like his body double: the great Bambino.
Sandoval is one of only the four players in major league history to hit three bombs in a World Series game. Babe Ruth did it twice. Reggie Jackson did it when the Bronx was burning in 1977. Albert Pujols did it last year against the Texas Rangers.
“I still can’t believe it,’’ Sandoval said after the game. “It means a lot. You have to enjoy this moment.’’
Here’s a little Panda minutiae for you: He is from Venezuela. His dad is in food management. His mom is reportedly a very good cook. He has a scar under his left eye, sustained when he was bitten by the family Doberman when he was a year old. He has three older brothers, one a police officer, one an attorney, and one a ballplayer. He signed with the Giants when he was 16. Barry Zito, Wednesday night’s winning pitcher, gave him his nickname. He lost a bunch of weight in 2011 (“Operation Panda” they called it) but seems to have gained it all back.
We love the Panda. He features the gut of every slow-pitch softball hero you’ve ever known. He is baseball’s tundra — a vast waist land.
From the left side (Sandoval is a switch-hitter) he works from an open stance, but closes quickly to the ball. He is a free swinger, and has Usain Bolt bat speed. You do not throw a fastball past him. Not even if you are Justin Verlander.
Verlander is supposed to be Sandy Koufax, circa 1963 or ’65. He is supposed to be Bob Gibson, stuffing the Red Sox three times in the 1967 World Series. Right now, he’s reminding me a little bit more of Roger Clemens — an MVP, Cy Young pitcher who always had trouble in the World Series.
Verlander went 3-0 with an 0.74 ERA against the A’s and Yankees. Oakland and New York batters hit an aggregate .122 over 24⅓ innings against Verlander. The only runs he surrendered came in the form of solo homers by Coco Crisp and Edwin Nunez.
It all went away Wednesday night . . . thanks to the Panda.
“I’m happy for him,’’ said Bochy, the Giants’ manager. “We’ve always thought a lot of Pablo. We need him . . . I’ll never forget it. Three home runs in a game like this, that’s pretty impressive.’’
Sandoval owns Verlander. He hit a three-run triple off the Tigers ace in the first inning of the 2012 All-Star Game in Kansas City.
With two outs and nobody aboard in the bottom of the first Wednesday, Verlander threw a high fastball (95 miles per hour) to Sandoval on an 0-2 pitch, and the Panda swatted if over the Visa sign in right-center field at AT&T Park.
It was a little shocking. The field had just been cleared of Giants royalty (Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Gaylord Perry), and suddenly Verlander and the Tigers were trailing. This came as a big surprise to manager Jim Leyland and everybody back in Motown.
The big trouble came in the third — again starting with two outs and nobody aboard.
Angel Pagan got the party started with a high chopper that came down on the third base bag and went for a cheap double. Old friend Marco Scutaro, the hottest hitter on the planet, worked the count to 3-2, then lined an RBI single to center to make it 2-0. When Verlander fell behind the Panda, 2-0, he was visited by pitching coach Jeff Jones.
The next pitch was a 95-m.p.h. heater on the outer half, and the Panda drove it over the wall in left for a 4-0 lead.
After Verlander had been lifted for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the fourth, Sandoval came to bat against Al Alburquerque in the fifth. He hit another homer to center and the rout was on.
“He hit one down, he hit a couple up,’’ said Leyland. “He was just having one of those nights where everything we threw, he hit. The guy had one of those unbelievable World Series nights that they’ll be talking about for years. I tip my hat to him.’’
Sandoval did not play much when the Giants won the World Series two years ago.
“That was my second year,’’ he said. “They teach me. You have ups and downs in your career. I never lost my faith to be here. We enjoy the moments. You never know.’’
Sandoval finished his work Wednesday with an RBI single in the seventh.
The crowd went wild. Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting.