There is no surer path to baseball immortality than an overwhelming performance in the postseason.
Giants fans haven’t forgotten Cody Ross. Heck, they haven’t forgotten Dusty Rhodes.
And even though the Giants didn’t get past the Chicago Cubs in the NL Division Series last October, players and coaches won’t soon cease to marvel over the force of nature that Conor Gillaspie had become at the plate.
But there’s one player in Scottsdale who would prefer to move past all of it - the dive into the photographer’s well against the Dodgers in the final regular-season series, the tiebreaking, three-run shot off the Mets’ Jeurys Familia in the NL Wild Card Game, even the impossibly pulled triple off the Cubs’ Aroldis Chapman on a 100.9 mph fastball, the hardest pitch he’d seen in his life, in Game 3 of the NL Division Series.
“I’ve never really been a big dig-me guy, you know what I mean?” Gillaspie said. “It was a great experience. It’s something that subconsciously really helped me. But I also know in this business, every year is different. You see it all the time. Every year you have to compete and earn respect from people.”
To that end, Gillaspie competed well in Sunday afternoon’s exhibition game against the Cincinnati Reds at Goodyear. He rubbed dirt on his bare hands, gripped the bat and crushed a two-run home run off Tim Adelson that seemed to travel halfway to the airplane graveyard parked beyond the right field wall.
It was Gillaspie’s first homer since that shot at Citi Field that snapped a scoreless tie in the Wild Card Game end elicited this legendarily laconic reaction from Madison Bumgarner: “Conor, I appreciate the hell out of that.”
At this time last spring, Gillaspie was a minor league free agent in Giants camp hoping to form a fresh impression in a second chance with the organization that drafted him. He not on the bubble for a roster spot this time. He is forecasted to be the Giants’ top left-handed pinch hitter and get occasional starts at third base, allowing Eduardo Núñez to rest or give breaks to others on the Giants infield.
But Gillaspie is not taking anything for granted. You don’t need to tell him how Travis Ishikawa, who clinched the pennant with his home run in 2014, got lost in the shuffle the following year.
“Last year was a great experience and I was fortunate to be in the position I was in,” said Gillaspie, who took over at third base at the end of last season when Núñez strained his hamstring. “There’s no doubt it’s helped me coming into this year, no disputing that. But just knowing how baseball operates, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, you have to constantly prove you can do it every single year. That’s the struggle of our job. That’s how baseball is.”
Magic dust usually leaves its residue, though. Ask Ross, who spent barely two seasons as a Giant yet is in camp as a special instructor this spring. He was touched by something divine in the 2010 NLCS when he hit two home runs off Roy Halladay, the Phillies’ unflinching ace, who was coming off baseball’s first postseason no-hitter in more than a half-century. Ross was named MVP of that series.
“Phillie killer!” exclaimed shortstop Jimmy Rollins, upon seeing Ross when he reported to Giants camp.
One can only wonder how many more daggers Gillaspie could have thrown last October if the Giants had gotten past the Cubs.
An Omaha native who lives in Wichita, Gillaspie is a weather nut who likes to chase storms in the offseason. Last October, he found himself in the eye of one. He took over at third base after Núñez strained his hamstring and found himself in the midst of one of those magical runs, one of those unconscious zones that ballplayers spend countless hours in the cage hoping to slip into and hold on for as long as they can.
It was not a pure fluke. Gillaspie led the Giants last season with a .353 batting average against fastballs of 95 mph or harder last season. His simple and compact swing is the perfect late-inning foil for Manager Bruce Bochy in an era when every opposing bullpen is stocked with high-velocity arms.
But even that doesn’t explain what he did in Game 3 of the NL Division Series against the Cubs, when he fired his hands at that fastball from Chapman and hit a two-run triple.
The Giants trailed by a run and were down to the final six outs in their season when Gillaspie came through and helped them to an eventual extra-inning victory. It was the fastest pitch he’d ever seen in his baseball life. It was his first time facing Chapman. And he not only put the barrel on it, but he hit it to his pull side.
In the process, he became the first left-handed hitter ever to triple off Chapman.
Ask the other left-handed hitters in the Giants clubhouse and their eyes still glaze over.
“Not just that he hit it, but that hit it with authority,” Joe Panik said. “It’s still unbelievable just thinking about it.”
“I mean, that has to be something you’re born with,” Brandon Belt said. “It was an amazing feat, yeah, but the way he was going at the time, I honestly had confidence in him.”
“Oh man,” Denard Span said. “I still don’t know how he was able to do that. That just shows you how quick Conor is and how locked in he was in the playoffs. He was definitely carrying us in the postseason.”
“It’s a period where things just work for you, you know?” Gillaspie said. “I honestly don’t remember that much about it. There wasn’t a lot of fear. You’re just up there lost in the game and just playing. The playoffs were sort of a relief for me, knowing I could just do one thing to help win a game.
“That takes a lot of pressure off as a player. It’s not constantly grinding to keep a job or fighting to continue playing. When you’re in the playoffs, it’s, `How can the Giants move on?’ So that set me at peace a little bit. You can strike out nine times out of 10, but the 10th time, you can do something great. And that’s what people will remember.”
When it was over, Gillaspie went home and had an adventure by his understated standards. He and his wife, Amanda, moved across Wichita to a new house set on some acreage. Their 3-year-old son, Mason, is due to get a little brother in June.
It is a good zone to be in.