Thursday, October 25, 2012

Three Paths To Redemption

There's no point trying to explain the Giants' Game 1 win over the Tigers. It's just more of the same crazy juju that's carried the team and its fans for a fortnight. Plus, as I messaged a friend during the game, it's unbelievable how many times I've used the word "unbelievable" in the last few days.

So let's spend some time reflecting on the remarkable paths taken by the Giants' three Game 1 heroes: Sandoval, Zito and Lincecum.

There are moments in your life you never forget, and for me, one of them came on the morning of August 14, 2008. My carpool-mate and colleague Steve Bitker called me over to the sports desk in the KCBS newsroom, where his TV was showing the Giants play a day game in Houston. Over the course of the morning, a few others gathered whenever a rotund young Giants catcher came to the plate.

History records Pablo Sandoval went 0-for-3 in that game and drove in a run with a sacrifice fly. What I'll never forget was how it looked: a chubby guy with that approachable round face, just slashing at the ball. In those pre-Panda days, Sandoval was a curiosity, but anyone who saw him squaring up pitches in and out of the strike zone could see this guy could hit. A raw, native talent; a diamond in the rough.

Four days later, the Giants closed out that road trip in Atlanta. Sandoval again started at catcher and went 2-for-4 with an RBI, leaving him with a .417 Major League batting average before he ever played a game in San Francisco. But that Sunday game in Atlanta carries extra weight in our little narrative, for the starting pitcher that day was...Barry Zito.

Zito was in the second year of the mega-contract that has, for so many, defined him. He was 6-15 with an ERA well above 5.00 when he took the mound in Atlanta that day. And he went 7 shutout innings, the sort of brilliant performance he produced from time to time--but never often enough to offset all the bad days. Zito was on his way to leading the Major Leagues in losses that year.

2008 was not much of a year for the Giants. The team finished 18 games under .500 and 12 games out of first. But fans were thrilling to the exploits of a singular talent, a kid they called The Freak. Tim Lincecum won the Cy Young Award in his first full big-league season.

Two years later, the Giants won the World Series for the first time in the lifetime of anyone on the roster. Lincecum was a star, winning 4 games including 2 in the World Series. Sandoval was mostly a spectator, getting only 19 plate appearances and batting .176 as Giants management questioned his obesity. Zito? Not even on the postseason roster.

And now here we are, two years later. Sandoval is still heavy, and he's gone through two straight seasons where he missed time with wrist surgery, but he's locked-in at the plate like he was on that 2008 road trip and his Game 1 three-homer performance puts him in the company of The Babe, Reggie, and Pujols (try saying it out loud without giggling: "Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, Albert Pujols...Pablo Sandoval!").

Lincecum has gone from the most dominant pitcher in the game to a guy who led the league in losses this year and posted an ERA above 5.00, eerily similar to Zito's 2008 stats. Unlike Zito in '10, he's on the roster, but in a new role: super-reliever. He appears to be having fun again, and with an ERA under 3.00 and 17 strikeouts in 15 innings, he's dealing. Twice, he's answered the call in a Zito start: once to pick up a win in an NLCS comeback and then to get a "hold" in Zito's World Series win.

That brings us to Zito. Anyone who still wants to talk about "the contract" at this point is either stupid or petty or both. In two of the most pressure-packed moments in recent Giants history, Zito has come up big.  Very big. His Game 5 NLCS start in St. Louis saved the Giants' season. And to outduel Justin Verlander in a World Series game? Please. Zito sports a 1.69 postseason ERA this year, and let's not forget his two hits and two RBI's at the plate.

Three unique men. Three twisting paths, each traversing hill and dale, often in unexpected directions. Challenges thrown down--physically and mentally--and met. Their journeys have come together now, in the World Series.

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