There's a scene toward the end of the great old movie The Man Who Would Be King where Sean Connery's character has nearly conned an Afghan tribe into believing that he's a God. But, just at the wrong moment, he's cut -- and blood trickles from his wound. Seeing this, the tribe's elder cries that Connery is "neither God nor devil but man!"
And then things get ugly.
On Wednesday night, the San Francisco Giants cut Detroit Übermensch pitcher Justin Verlander -- and both he and the Tigers did bleed. Verlander is neither God nor devil but man. And, for Detroit, things got ugly. San Francisco's 8-3 thrashing of the Tigers in Game 1 of the World Series was a narrative-shattering win, and further proof that so-called expert predictions are like stock options -- they're worthless until cashed in.
Among fans and those paid -- or not paid
to pound on keyboards or jabber into microphones, Verlander had been
elevated from a supremely talented pitcher into some manner of Grendel,
an unstoppable force set loose to raze San Francisco. But Giants batters
treated the prodigy the way they've handled every pitcher during the last few games of their ongoing, magical postseason run: They ripped into him.
Verlander's reputation is well-earned. Stat-heads can argue whether he's outclassed Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson at their finest (an uphill battle), but stat-heads don't have to step into the batter's box. Verlander has been nothing short of brilliant during the Tigers' World Series run. But today's outing indicated that facing the Giants is a different task than taking on the Oakland A's -- an offensively challenged squad that strikes out with Rob Deer regularity -- or the imploding, geriatric Yankees.
The Giants work the count, and put the ball in play. And, two batters into the contest, Pablo Sandoval put the ball over the wall in the deepest part of the park. His shot was an absolute bolt, a 421-foot bomb that would have endangered concessionaires in other ballparks, but barely cleared AT&T Park's center field wall. Verlander missed high with the 0-2 pitch -- and, yes, this was the first homer surrendered by Verlander on an 0-2 pitch all year.
In the third inning, Verlander's radar reading began to creep up. After hitting 94 mph out of the gate, he began flirting with triple digits. But the Giants' luck and skill got the better of him this time. Angel Pagan's two-out dribbler up the left field line kicked off the bag, a play influenced by baseball's gods, devils, the Matrix, or what have you. Marco Scutaro followed with a supreme at-bat, working the count full, fouling off a pair of monster fastballs, and sending yet another screamer back up the middle for an RBI.
Then Sandoval launched an opposite-field shot just over the left field wall; the high-powered cameras caught Verlander mouthing "wow!" along with the 43,000-plus fans in the stadium (Sandoval would later add a third dinger off reliever Al Alburquerque; all three homers came on pitches that perhaps only the bad-ball-hitting savant Sandoval could have put over the fence).
One inning later, in a final indignity, the Giants tagged Verlander for yet another run via a liner to left off the bat of pitcher Barry Zito -- a man who registers a hit in roughly one of every 13 at-bats against the league, let alone the league's best pitcher. Verlander bled five runs in only five innings, and was made to throw 98 pitches in that abbreviated outing.
It was yet another glorious evening for Zito in his professional renaissance. Watching him toss looping curves and 84 mph fastballs past the Tigers' heavy hitters was akin to witnessing a hummingbird land, repeatedly, atop a bear trap. The big snap never came, and, when the Tigers put wood on the ball, the Giants' defense bailed Zito out. Gregor Blanco made up for a dismal day at the plate by robbing both Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder with diving catches in left field.
On paper, the Verlander vs. Zito pairing may have been one of the great mismatches of World Series history. The games, of course, aren't played on paper. And the Giants' disadvantage of throwing a starting rotation in flux against a rested Tigers squad helmed by a diety was blown up Wednesday night.
If Madison Bumgarner truly has "fixed" whatever flaw rendered him a batting practice pitcher this postseason, then the Giants have an opportunity to send the Tigers back to Detroit in need of a bailout. But that's a scenario that will work its way out soon enough. Baseball games aren't won by gods or devils -- but by men.