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Never-say-die Giants cap season of surprises

Venezuelan baseball player Miguel Cabrera of the Major League Baseball's Detroit Tigers attends an event to donate sports equipment to young
Venezuelan baseball player Miguel Cabrera of the Major League Baseball's Detroit Tigers attends an event to donate sports equipment to young

By Larry Fine

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The never-say-die San Francisco Giants' rousing drive to the World Series title capped a year of surprises, sensational individual achievements and big-name doping controversies in Major League Baseball (MLB).

Miguel Cabrera of the pennant-winning Detroit Tigers claimed the first Triple Crown sweep of the American League's (AL) major offensive categories in 45 years by slugging 44 home runs with 139 runs batted in, while batting .330.

San Francisco's Matt Cain, Phillip Humber of the Chicago White Sox and Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners put their names in the record books with perfect games, a remarkable triple considering the total of 23 perfectos since Lee Richmond threw MLB's first recorded one in 1880 for Worcester.

Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout had one of the best rookie seasons ever, hitting 30 home runs, 83 RBIs, batting .326 and leading MLB with 49 stolen bases to finish runner-up to Cabrera in the AL Most Valuable Player (MVP) voting at age 21.

Those feats marked 2012 as a special year, with the Giants' rise to the top providing the crowning touch.

San Francisco fought off elimination six times during the playoffs, overcoming a 2-0 deficit with three straight road wins in the best-of-five Division Series against the Cincinnati Reds, and battling back from 3-1 down against the 2011 champion St. Louis Cardinals to reach the World Series.

VENEZUELA POWER

In the Fall Classic against the Tigers, the Giants served immediate notice they would no longer play from behind.

Stocky third baseman Pablo Sandoval, nicknamed Kung Fu Panda, powered home runs in his first three at-bats to kick-start San Francisco on their way to a four-game sweep.

Venezuela's Sandoval, saluted by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez via Twitter, joined Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols as the only players with three homers in a World Series game.

Giants catcher Buster Posey, 25, returned from a home plate collision that aborted his 2011 season to win National League (NL0 MVP honors.

It was also a banner year for Venezuelan players.

Sandoval won the World Series MVP award, following compatriot Marco Scutaro, who was MVP of the National League Championship Series for San Francisco.

Cabrera claimed the American League MVP award and in addition to the perfect game by fellow-Venezuelan "King Felix" Hernandez, countryman Johan Santana of the Mets threw the first no-hitter by a Mets pitcher in their half-century of existence.

SERIOUS CONCERNS

The Tigers had reached the World Series by sweeping the New York Yankees, who had some serious concerns going forward.

Yankees captain Derek Jeter fractured his ankle diving for a ball at shortstop in the series against Detroit, and slugging third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who suffered through an abysmal postseason, was found after the season to need hip surgery that will sideline him for half the 2013 season.

Making the Giants' climb to the top even more unlikely was the loss of outfielder Melky Cabrera, who was hit with a 50-game suspension in August for testing positive for testosterone while leading the majors with a .346 batting average.

A week later starting pitcher Bartolo Colon (10-9) of the Oakland Athletics, across the bay from San Francisco, also received a 50-game ban for testosterone.

The loss of Colon did not impede the Athletics either, as they rode a rotation that featured four rookie pitchers all the way to AL West title over two-time champion Texas Rangers.

The Baltimore Orioles gave the AL a second Cinderella team, as they reached the postseason for the first time in 15 years, reversing a 69-93 2011 record, and knocked out Texas in this season's debut of a wildcard playoff game.

The Washington Nationals reached the playoffs for the first time in their eighth season in the U.S. capital and posted the best record in the majors with 98 wins.

DOPING ISSUES

Even before the season started, doping was a prominent talking point as NL MVP Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers was found to have tested positive for a performance enhancing drug.

However, Braun won an appeal against an automatic suspension by proving that his urine test had been mishandled.

Doping news also grabbed attention after the season when Hall of Fame ballots went out with Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens listed as candidates for the first time.

Bonds, a seven-time NL MVP and the all-time career and single season home run king, and seven-time Cy Young winning pitcher Clemens would ordinarily be first-ballot shoo-ins, but a cloud of doping suspicion hovers over both of them and turns the vote into a referendum on the taint of the Steroids Era.

The year closed with some tantalizing prospects for the new season.

The big-spending Los Angeles Dodgers added top free agent pitcher Zack Greinke to MLB's biggest payroll, the Toronto Blue Jays opened their wallets to take on high-priced talent from the economizing Miami Marlins, and the Los Angeles Angels signed premier slugger Josh Hamilton to fortify their lineup.

(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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