Casual fans could be puzzled why losing Cabrera and his .346 average on Aug. 15 -- when San Francisco was in a flat-footed tie for the NL West lead -- didn't derail the Giants. Cabrera's importance, as the No. 3 hitter batting ahead of team lightning rod Buster Posey, was illustrated by this: Through Aug. 14, Posey had driven home a teammate 57 times -- and 24 of those times it was Cabrera.The answer is Sandoval. He immediately replaced Cabrera in the three-hole and stayed there, with the exception of three off-days, the remainder of the season. With Sandoval getting the occasional big blow but always doing his part to "keep the line moving," the Giants went 29-15 to essentially lap the division. "I think the reason we were able to get some separation down the stretch," Posey said Saturday after the NLCS duelists' workouts, "was because he got hot offensively." Sandoval stayed hot through the NL Division Series, batting .333 in the five games against the Reds and punctuating it with five hits, including a home run, in the last two games. The Cardinals, and specifically Game 1 starter Lance Lynn, can take that as a warning. Sandoval is a notable streak hitter, like an electric range. Get him hot, and he can take a long time to cool off. The latest testimony of that occurred less than a month ago. On Sept. 20, against the Rockies, Sandoval drilled his first home run in 161 at-bats. The next two days, he hit three more. Just as he was pivotal in the final two steps of the Giants' unprecedented road rebound from the 0-2 NLDS hole, Sandoval is a key to their hopes for a return to the World Series. Posey may be the biggest threat in the San Francisco lineup, but the hitter in front of him has to ratchet up that threat. Going back "home" pumped up Sandoval. He'd been a frequent No. 3 hitter until Cabrera, inserted into that critical slot in early May when surgery to repair a left hamate bone sidelined Sandoval, hogged the spot with his torrid hitting. Consequently, when Sandoval returned from the hand injury, it was as a No. 6 hitter. Oddly, Sandoval was ready to come off the DL from another injury, that one to his hamstring, at the precise time Cabrera received his suspension. Sandoval thus resurfaced as a born-again No. 3 man. "And I was excited about it," he said. "Hitting in front of Buster? He's such a great hitter, one of the best. So hitting in front of him was exciting for me, and we started to pull away. Now I can help the team even more, so I feel great." Funny thing about perceptions: They can easily twist the reality. Consider Sandoval's well-chronicled benching from the Giants' 2010 postseason run to the World Series championship. The belief persists that Sandoval simply played himself out of the lineup as that season approached the wire. Well, in August-September 2010, Sandoval batted .278. The final two months of this season, he hit .259. Furthermore, the switch-hitting third baseman had 50 extra-base hits in 2010, almost the same total (52) in 2011 -- and 39 this season, while having a comparable number of at-bats. Those are the numbers, and much more goes into evaluating a player's status. Bochy thought Sandoval "was lost at the plate" in 2010 and thinks "he's in a different place now." San Francisco batting coach Hensley Meulens recently told Bay Area reporters that Sandoval has "a lot of confidence right now, compared to two years ago." "We need him to contribute," Meulens added. "[Angel] Pagan and [Marco] Scutaro are doing a good job getting on base in front of him, and Buster and [Hunter] Pence are driving in runs behind him. All we need is for him to keep the line moving." Sandoval will begin this NLCS as an X-factor, an odd designation for a veteran in a postseason series. Because his injuries coincided with the Giants dates with the Cardinals -- and because one team holds Spring Training in Arizona and the other in Florida -- he hasn't seen any action this year against the Cardinals. As a consequence. he has never faced a significant portion of the current St. Louis staff, including Joe Kelly, Marc Rzepczynski, Trevor Rosenthal, Fernando Salas and Lynn. Lynn, the Game 1 starter, is a 6-foot-5, 250-pound hirsute fireballer who can terrorize hitters. Sandoval was asked what about the big right-hander creeps him out. "I've never faced him before," Sandoval replied. "So I'm fine."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.