Barry Zito outpitched Justin Verlander. Pablo Sandoval joined Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols as the only players to hit three home runs in a World Series game. The baseball world has gone topsy-turvy.
By all rights, this shouldn't have happened. Sandoval, with 12 home runs during the entire 2012 season, shouldn't have joined three of baseball's all-time greats to post one of the most impressive displays of power on the game's biggest stage. Likewise, Zito, the $126 million bust, shouldn't have shown up the sport's best big-game pitcher when it counted the most. But it did happen. We saw it right before our eyes.
But such is baseball, and such is why we tune in — more than any other sport, baseball yields the opportunity to see something you never have before on any given day.
No one will ever claim that, at this point in his career, Zito is a superior pitcher to Verlander, or that Sandoval is the preeminent third baseman in the game over Miguel Cabrera, who went 1-for-3 on Wednesday. But during Game 1 of the 2012 World Series, they turned in the superior performances, outshining the brighter stars that the Tigers brought with them to the West Coast.
And this is exactly why baseball is distinct from any other sport. In the NBA, especially, the perceived best teams tend to advance further into the playoffs, with true, where-did-they-come-from upsets very rare. The NFL may have its "Any given Sunday" motto, but ultimately it's a game about individual matchups, and the superior players tend to come out on top. As for the NHL, its championship is usually decided by whoever has the hottest goaltender at the time.
Not so for baseball, where momentum seems to be the driving force behind who winds up on top.
Of course, the prevailing wisdom in baseball teaches us not to think in terms of intangibles like momentum. On the aggregate and over time, so the metricians say, good players are good players, and ultimately there's no such thing as "clutch."
But the thing is, even the mathematical analysts admit that their theories and numbers can be thrown out the window come playoff time. In fact, one of the foremost lessons of Michael Lewis' book Moneyball was that the playoffs are too small a sample size to predict anything — in the book's parlance, a "crapshoot."
To quote Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, "This [expletive] doesn't work in the playoffs."
And that is why baseball is such a beautiful thing. Brady Quinn will never throw for 400 yards in the Super Bowl, and Kwame Brown will never score 40 points en route to an NBA Finals MVP award. But, if only for one night, a guy named Kung Fu Panda joined The Bambino, Mr. October and The Machine in one of the most heralded accomplishments in the sport's history. Nevermind their superior, near-mythical careers, because on this night, they are every bit the equals.
Nevermind that Zito has been one of the most-dismissed players in baseball over the past six years since coming to the Giants. It's irrelevant that Verlander is coming off the first MVP season for a pitcher in 20 years, and easily considered the single most dominant force in the game. On this night, Zito, topping out at 86 miles per hour, was the superior man to Verlander's upper-90s heat.
If you're trying to build a baseball team, all you can do is hope to get to the playoffs. The right way to construct a roster is, in fact, looking at wider trends, aggregates and sample sizes. But once those head-to-head series begin, it's all a crapshoot. What becomes more important are being clutch, having heart and getting hot — and all the other sports cliches that the sabermetric crowd despises considering.
But again, this is why baseball is the greatest sport of them all. On any given day, the 25th man can be the hero, a player with 12 home runs on the season can best the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years, and 85 mph can beat 100.
The playoffs may be a crapshoot, but what a ride it is.