Game 1 of the World Series is one of the greatest moments in sporting events and San Francisco Giant fans have been graced with not one, but two such opening games in just three years. All of which had many hard-core fans on edge at the start of Wednesday night’s opener against the Detroit Tigers.
Since I was fortunate enough to have been at the 2010 opener against the Texas Rangers, and was back again for the 2012 version, I could share their angst.
After all, in 2010, the Giants came in underdogs after tough division and league series wins, against a favored and more rested opponent — and against a seemingly unbeatable pitcher for the other team. In 2010, it was the Rangers’ Cliff Lee, and this year, it was the exalted Justin Verlander, he of the 98 mph, 7th-inning fastball and 86 mph changeup. In fact, Verlander is so good, his changeup is faster than the Giants’ Game 1 starter, the redoubtable Barry Zito’s, whose fastballWednesday night would not top 85.
But in 2010, the Giants took down Cliff Lee, on the way to a five-game Series win with a ragtag band of wayfaring players. This year’s team, remarkably, features only one holdover in the daily lineup from the 2010 champs — catcher Buster Posey. The 2010 Giants had pitching coming out of their ears; the 2012 Giants, led by the steely eyed grit of Posey and playing-out-his-mind second baseman Marco Scutaro, is the kind of team that could survive this postseason by winning six do-or-die elimination games.
And it wouldn’t take long for the fans in the upper view box behind home plate, where I was stationed, meeting new friends all sharing anxiety over what would happen in the Verlander-Zito matchup, to catch on that something special was abat. When with two out in the first, and two strikes, Pablo Sandoval crushed a high fastball and sent it over the 399-foot marker into the center field stands for a home run and 1-0 lead, the specter of the Mighty Verlander, so overpowering in the Tigers’ postseason wins over the A’s and Yankees, was not invincible.
And the rest became history: Sandoval’s second home run, coming after Verlander brushed aside a visit to the mound by his pitching coach, essentially telling him, get out of here, then delivering another wayward fastball to Giants’ rotund third baseman that was deposited in the left-field seats (the opposite field for the left-handed batting Sandoval). But that wasn’t all: in the ultimate indignity, Zito himself delivered a run-scoring base hit off Verlander, who by then was unraveling like a fishing line caught on a snag — and the snag was a Giants team that seemingly won’t believe they can’t overcome the currents running against them.
The long-reviled Zito has become the Unlikely Hero story of the 2012 postseason, winning on the road in a crucial game against the St. Louis Cardinals, and delivering 5.2 innings of good-enough pitching Wednesday night to have the fan’s newly requited love for the lefthander sent into further swoon. Of course, when Tim Lincecum, like Zito a former Cy Young award winner, relieved in the 6th, the fans went into further frenzy, screaming for their beloved “Timmy” as he took the mound and proceeded to strike out five of the seven batters he would face. Lincecum has seemingly been reborn as a middle innings reliever — yet another unlikely Bruce Bochy master move of this unique postseason.
The fans in View Box 310 were besides themselves, as unlikely event after stunning play or at bat unfolded: Gregor Blanco’s great catches, Angel Pagan’s ground ball that kicked off third base for a double, yet another clutch RBI hit from the nonpareil Scutaro, and in the 8th, a punishing counter punch to flailing Tigers’ reliever Jose Valverde, recently deposed as closer for the team. Valverde struck out Lincecum and then went into his ritual of squatting, talking to himself and then charging back to the mound. It was utterly ridiculous and pathetic in a then 6-1 game, infuriating fans in the stands, and the Giants quickly scored two runs, driving him out of the game, and perhaps the rest of the Series.
After the game, tens of thousands of orange and black clad fans surged into Willie Mays Plaza on a warm October night, as light rain sprinkles fell. “Gi-ants, Gi-ants” was the roar cascading around the ballpark as the excitement of Game 1 of the 2012 World Series still flowed like an electric jolt, lighting the plaza with the promise of more.