By Larry Fine
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Pablo Sandoval blasted a record-tying three home runs to power the San Francisco Giants to a surprising 8-3 win over the Detroit Tigers and ace Justin Verlander in the opening game of the World Series on Wednesday.
Sandoval became just the fourth player to hit three homers in a World Series game with his solo shot in the first inning and a two-run blast in the third off Verlander, and a roundtripper in the fifth off reliever Al Alburquerque.
The Venezuelan joined Babe Ruth (1926, 1928), Reggie Jackson (1977) and Albert Pujols (2011) in accomplishing the feat.
Verlander had yielded only two runs in more than 24 innings in three playoff wins this postseason but on Wednesday, he gave up five runs on six hits in four innings.
"Obviously the big guy (Sandoval) had one of those unbelievable nights that happens once in a while in a World Series," Detroit manager Jim Leyland told reporters. "What a night for him."
Not only was the hard-throwing Verlander bludgeoned by Sandoval, who hit just 12 home runs during the regular season, he was outpitched by soft-tossing left-hander Barry Zito.
Giants starter Zito pitched into the sixth, allowing one run on six hits to register the victory. Zito, who won 15 games this season, has been solid down the stretch of the season as San Francisco has won all 14 of his last starts.
The thrilling power display by Sandoval that had the AT&T Park crowd waving their orange rally rags in a frenzy turned the Giants into frontrunners for the first time this postseason.
The Giants, who were the first team in 25 years to reach the World Series despite hitting the fewest home runs in the majors, have won six do-or-die games in the playoffs against the St Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds.
"To hit three home runs, I mean, that's always a surprise," San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy said. "But the guy can hit. He's got a great ability to get the good part of the bat on the ball.
"We're not known for our power, but it's nice to get three home runs. He's been locked in for a while," he said, referring to Sandoval's three home runs during the previous two series. "Just a tremendous night. A night I know he'll never forget."
The Game One showing was especially sweet for Zito, who was left off the 2010 World Series roster, and Sandoval, who scarcely played two years ago when the Giants won the Fall Classic over the Texas Rangers.
Bochy saluted the performance by Zito, who until this season had been a free agent flop at a cost of $126 million.
"He's been throwing the ball very well, and I was happy and glad to tell him that he had the start tonight," Bochy added. "He was excited about it.
"He's kind of been our lucky charm, too. Fourteen games now we've found a way to win his ballgames, and he's just had great focus out there and concentration."
Tim Lincecum, a two-times Cy Young winner pitching out of the bullpen after struggling this year, came on for Zito and threw two and one-third innings of hitless relief with five strikeouts.
Jhonny Peralta hit a two-run homer in the ninth for Detroit to cap the scoring.
Leyland speculated that the long layoff the Tigers had after sweeping the New York Yankees might have affected Verlander, who had last pitched eight days ago.
"It's been quite a while since he's pitched. His command was not good," said Leyland, who added he was not worried.
"I'm a guy that doesn't believe in momentum in baseball. I think momentum is your next day's pitcher."
The second game of the best-of-seven series to decide Major League Baseball's champion will be played on Thursday in San Francisco with left-hander Madison Bumgarner starting for the hosts against Detroit's Doug Fister.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford and John O'Brien)