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Panda bears down when Giants need him most

Third baseman raising his game -- just like he did during 2012 postseason

ST. LOUIS -- The postseason is Pablo Sandoval's time of year, and on Saturday night, the man they lovingly call "Panda" had another exceptional playoff game for the Giants in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.

Sandoval, who went 3-for-4, doubled to lead off the second inning on a ball that popped out of Randal Grichuk's glove when he slammed into the right-field fence at Busch Stadium, and the Giants' third baseman came around to score his team's first run in what turned out to be a 3-0 victory.

It's typical Sandoval when the Giants are in the postseason -- as they have been three times in the past five years.

"Man, it's exciting to be back in October," Sandoval said after the Giants took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, with Game 2 back here on Sunday (5 p.m. PT, FOX Sports 1). "Last year I was home watching the games on TV. It's exciting to try and make this effort. You either win or just go home. That's what we try to do every single day, [and that's win]. If you don't get too excited in certain situations, then you're going to win games. You just try to calm yourself down so you can be in the situation you want to be."

The numbers don't lie. In 2010, when the Giants defeated the Rangers to win the World Series for the first time since 1954, Sandoval was injured and out of shape. Juan Uribe was the third baseman that postseason. But Sandoval exploded two years ago when the Giants won it again. He batted .310 (9-for-29) with two homers and six RBIs in the NLCS as the Giants came back from a 3-1 deficit to win the pennant in seven games.

Even better, Sandoval hit .500 (8-for-16) as the Giants swept the Tigers in the World Series. In Game 1 at AT&T Park, Sandoval tied a World Series record held by Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols when he hit three homers. The first two were off Detroit ace Justin Verlander.

What is it about this time of year? Sandoval's a .327 hitter with six homers and 16 RBIs in 28 postseason games.

Video: Panda's hit to the wall

"Well, those guys who hit in the middle of the order are crucial to our success," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who has presided over all that success. "Pablo, he's a great player. He's done a great job at third base, and he's a guy we lean on to give us some offense. He's a gifted player and a gifted hitter, and he had a nice night tonight. He hit some tough pitches. He has the ability to expand the zone and still get the good part of the bat on it."

Whether or not the Giants win the World Series again, Sandoval will be a free agent at the end of the postseason, and for all the reasons Bochy just elucidated, his ballclub has to make a big decision about re-signing the third baseman. Sandoval's 28, he has a tendency to gain weight and would probably make an excellent designated hitter at the end of a long-term contract. That means he's a prime candidate to move to the American League.

When asked directly during Saturday's postgame news conference whether he wants to remain with the Giants, Sandoval said simply: "I don't know."

When asked privately to delve into that answer, Sandoval politely added: "I really don't want to talk about that now, sir. I don't want to answer that question. Let's just get through the playoffs and see what happens."

To that end, Sandoval lost weight this past offseason and had a fairly representative walk year, batting .279 with 16 homers and 73 RBIs. Even more significantly, he played in a career-high 157 games, starting 150 of them at third base. Sandoval remained healthy and went into the postseason healthy. His weight continues to fluctuate, but he said on Saturday night that he feels fresh. It's hard to argue after that Game 1 performance that ended with Sandoval fielding the final grounder off the bat of Yadier Molina, easily tossing out the All-Star catcher out at first.

"Yeah, man, it's great, especially when you see all the work you put in during the offseason pay off," Sandoval said. "I played more games this year than ever. I will keep swinging the bat the way I did earlier in the season. Right now, I don't even feel tired."

After all, it is the Panda's time of year.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball.
Read More: San Francisco Giants, Pablo Sandoval