SAN FRANCISCO – It was supposed to be the Justin Verlander Show.
But the stage, the final act, and the curtain call belonged to Pablo Sandoval.
The “Kung Fu Panda” had one of those historic World Series nights — three homers in the first five innings (four hits overall) — in the San Francisco Giants’ 8-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers in Game 1 before 42,855 at AT&T Park.
The Giants’ lovable, overweight third baseman hit a solo homer to right-center off Verlander with two outs in the first inning to give the Giants a 1-0 lead, then in the third he homered to left with Marco Scutaro (two hits, two RBIs) aboard to give the Giants a 4-0 lead.
In the fifth, Sandoval socked a solo homer to center against off reliever Al Alburquerque, making it 6-0.
It was the fifth time in World Series history a player hit three homers in a game. Babe Ruth did it twice, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols once.
“I still can’t believe it,” Sandoval said. “He’s one of the best pitchers in the game. You just have to try not to do too much. You want to face the best and be the best against the best.”
The Tigers were the rested ones. It turned out they were the rusty ones.
The Tigers’ rotation was set up, while the Giants had to go the distance in the Division Series against Cincinnati and the Championship Series against St. Louis.
The Giants should have been dog tired, but they were sharp and the Tigers were flat.
And the flame-throwing Verlander was bested by the junkballing Barry Zito.
“Sure, it’s disappointing,” Verlander said. “You’d love to be up, 1-0, right now, but don’t forget the three guys behind me have had great seasons and are pitching very well. We have to come out and rebound, that’s all there is to it.”
Verlander has allowed six runs this postseason, five on home runs. He had allowed only one multihomer game all season, to Desmond Jennings of the Rays, who hit two against him June 29 at Tropicana Field.
Was it the long layoff?
“I don’t know if it had anything to do with that,” Verlander said. “I wasn’t in synch out there, I know that. Whether the layoff had anything to do with it, I don’t know.”
The Giants’ third-inning rally had Scutaro (who else?) right in the middle of it. He singled up the middle to score Angel Pagan and make it 3-0.
“You know, he wasn’t terrible,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said of Verlander. “He just wasn’t good. You know, it’s a little bit puzzling, to be honest with you.”
Zito is transforming himself into the present-day Frank Tanana, while Verlander is showing signs of a tired arm. The Giants have won Zito’s last 14 starts, including three in the postseason, with Zito going 9-0 with a 3.46 ERA in those games.
“I battled in September to make the postseason roster and I never expected to be Game 1 starter of the World Series, and then to win the game against Justin Verlander. I’m just honored to be here and give us a win in Game 1,” Zito said.
Zito had the Tigers off-balance. There were trickles of hope, but nothing materialized until the sixth, when they got on the board with a Miguel Cabrera single to right scoring Austin Jackson, who had begun the inning with a double.
And Jhonny Peralta hit a two-run homer in the ninth to cap the Tigers’ scoring.
Zito, who was relieved by Tim Lincecum with two outs in the sixth, helped himself with the bat. In the fourth inning, he was up, 2-0, on the count against Verlander and slapped a single to left field to drive in the Giants’ fifth run.
Sandoval can certainly match Fielder, Cabrera, and Delmon Young and Peralta in girth. But his Game 1 performance surpassed them all.
He first showed signs of being able to solve Verlander in the All-Star Game in Kansas City in July when he tripled with the bases loaded against him. It turned out to be a huge reason why the National League won home-field advantage for the World Series.
Sandoval has battled weight issues throughout his career. He didn’t play much in the 2010 postseason after having a bad season. But he is a two-time All-Star, who at 26 can be a force. He missed 53 games with a fractured left hamate bone and strained left hamstring, yet still managed to hit .283 with 12 homers and 63 RBIs. He hit .294 (32 for 109) with runners in scoring position and .400 when swinging at the first pitch.
Sandoval is hitting .370 with 4 doubles, 6 homers, and 13 RBIs in 13 games this postseason.
“I couldn’t be happier for him,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy. “With what he went through in 2010, now he’s getting a chance to go out there and show what kind of player he is. I’ll never forget that. Three home runs on a stage like this. That’s pretty impressive.”Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.