They weren’t talking about Justin Verlander.
The reigning American League most valuable player didn’t much look like it in the Tigers’ 8-3 loss to the Giants on Wednesday night.
All around, it was a nightmare World Series opener for Detroit.
Verlander lasted just four innings, Barry Zito stonewalled the Tigers, and maybe the Mayans were right.
Who could have seen this one coming?
Verlander had whisked away the ghosts of bitter postseasons past with a dominant run this October, allowing all of two runs in three playoff starts against the Athletics and the Yankees. But on Wednesday, he labored through his shorting outing of the season, allowing six runs on five hits.
“We just got beat,” Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. “I mean, there was nothing fluky about this. When you use five guys in a game that Justin starts, you’re going to get beat.”
The best sign this would not be Verlander’s night came in the third inning. With two out and nobody on, a soft grounder to third by Angel Pagan caromed off the bag for a double.
That was Verlander’s 50th pitch of the night. He finished the inning with 70.
Verlander then allowed a run-scoring double and received an unwelcome visit when he got behind 2-0 on Sandoval. The right-hander narrowed his eyes and smirked, his body language suggesting pitching coach Jeff Jones would be best served to turn around.
Yet on the next pitch, Verlander confirmed he was not indeed fine. After Sandoval hit a home run to center field in the first inning, he continued his postseason tear with an opposite-field blast to left that put the Giants ahead 4-0.
Together, Sandoval’s historic night —the portly third baseman known as Kung Fu Panda became just the fourth player in World Series history to slug three homers in a game —and Zito’s mastery ensured the night was one long party by the bay.
Not exactly the way Detroit hoped to dismiss worries of the effects of its weeklong layoff.
Verlander was the closet thing to a lock as there is in this unpredictable game while Zito looked to be a wildcard. The soft-tossing left-hander was coming off the performance of his career —7 2/3 scoreless innings against the Cardinals in Game 5 of the NLCS —but had a 4.15 ERA during the regular season and a uneven recent resume. Zito, who signed to a seven-year, $126 million deal before the 2007 season, was left off the postseason roster for all three rounds of the Giants’ championship run in 2010.
It was suggested —or perhaps wished —in some corners that the Giants would have to win four of the five games Verlander did not start to take the series.
“It’s obviously a great compliment for people to say, but this is the game of baseball and anything can happen,“ Verlander said on Tuesday. “I don't think myself nor the Tigers take anything for granted no matter who's on the mound.”
Now they know why. Zito held the Tigers scoreless through five innings and was touched only for a run-scoring single by Miguel Cabrera in the sixth inning. In all, he held Detroit to six hits over 5 2/3 innings and left the field to a ear-splitting ovation.
He even pitched in at the plate, hitting a two-out run-scoring single in the fourth. After that inning, “Bye-Bye-Baby” was not only the Giants’ ubiquitous theme song. It was Verlander’s, too.
Leyland said Verlander’s extended layoff since beating the Yankees on Oct. 17 was evident.
“He was definitely rusty,” Leyland said. “There’s no question about it. He got on fast forward, he got out of syn. He really didn’t pitch, obviously, the way he’s capable of pitching. But there’s no excuses. He just didn’t have a good game, and the Giants’ hitters did.”
The Tigers’ bullpen provided little relief.
Sandoval joined Babe Ruth (1926 and 1928), Reggie Jackson (1977) and Albert Pujols (2011) in the Fall Classic’s three-homer club with a solo shot into the center-field batter's eye in the fifth off Al Alburquerque. (Sandoval singled in his final at-bat to finish 4 for 4 with four RBIs.)
"To hit three home runs, that's always a surprise," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "But the guy can hit. ... Just a tremendous night. A night I know he'll never forget."
Jose Valverde then likely assured he will not return to the closer’s role this postseason, allowing two runs on four hits while recording only one out in the seventh inning.
Contact David Briggs at: email@example.com, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.