Conor Gillaspie’s Home Run, and How the Dominoes Fell Just Right

Oct 2, 2016; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants third baseman Conor Gillaspie (21) is congratulated by teammates during the second inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at AT&T Park. Mandatory Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 2, 2016; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants third baseman Conor Gillaspie (21) is congratulated by teammates during the second inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at AT&T Park. Mandatory Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports /

A deep look at Conor Gillaspie’s game-winning home run for the San Francisco Giants, and how the dominoes fell just right.

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A lot of variables led to Conor Gillaspie‘s defining moment in the ninth inning of Wednesday’s Wildcard game against the New York Mets. It wasn’t just one fastball that caught a bit too much of the plate, but many smaller things that all came together to make that moment possible. Gillaspie was the hero, but he needed help from the guys around him, as well.

It all started early in the game. Even though Mets’ starter Noah Syndergaard was just about unhittable, the Giants’ lineup did a nice job of working counts, making the starter throw a lot of pitches. He was perfect through two innings, but had still thrown 29 pitches. Denard Span became the first baserunner in the fourth, leading the inning off with an eight-pitch walk. He was thrown out trying to steal second, but Brandon Belt followed with a seven-pitch walk. The Giants didn’t score that inning, but Syndergaard’s pitch count kept climbing, reaching 60 after four innings.

After six, he was up to 91. After seven, it was up to 109 and he would go no deeper into the game. The first domino had fallen.

Gillaspie admitted after the game that he was “relieved” when Syndergaard was lifted, saying he was “overmatched” by the young hurler’s heat. It showed, as Gillaspie struck out in both at-bats against him and didn’t make contact with any of the nine pitches he saw.

In the eighth inning against Addison Reed, the Giants sent six hitters to the plate despite being unable to crack the scoreboard. Gillaspie, coincidentally, led off with a single, and two walks later in the frame loaded the bases. Hunter Pence struck out to leave them loaded, but that many hitters coming to the plate got them to the right part of the lineup, as it turned out, for the ninth.

Brandon Crawford gave Gillaspie the opportunity to be a hero by leading off the ninth inning with a double against Mets’ closer Jeurys Familia. When Familia left a 2-1, 96-mile-per-hour fastball a little too high, Crawford stroked it to left field with his familiar opposite field hack. Next up was Angel Pagan, who was initially tasked with bunting Crawford along. After Pagan failed twice to get the bunt down, he swung through a high fastball for the inning’s first out.

That brought the struggling Joe Panik to the plate. He was hitless in three at-bats on the night, including striking out twice. Though mired in a deep slump, the second baseman didn’t try to do too much. He stayed within himself, taking close pitches and fighting some more off. He worked a seven-pitch walk to bring Gillaspie to the plate.

Familia’s first pitch was a 96-mph sinker to the inside part of the plate, a very good potential double play pitch. The second pitch was another heater at 96, but Familia bounced it to bring the count even. Gillaspie, as he always does, bent at the waist to pick up dirt with his batting glove-clad hands, pondering the next delivery. Familia looked in to his catcher Rene Rivera for the sign. It was another number one, the hard stuff.

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Rivera set up at the bottom of the zone, but put down a target late. Instead, Familia’s pitch was up, counteracting the sinking movement of the fastball. Familia missed his spot, but Gillaspie didn’t miss his pitch. He smacked that high heater to right field, and all Jay Bruce could do was turn and chase futilely as the ball sailed into the net atop the bullpen.

The crowd went silent, but Gillaspie erupted. He roared as he rounded the bases, showing an emotion that is almost foreign for him.

If Giants’ hitters don’t make Syndergaard throw 109 pitch in seven innings, he probably cruises through the eighth and ninth and the game might still be going on. If they don’t work 12 five-plus pitch at-bats, who knows how deep Thor goes.

If Pagan gets the bunt down and moves Crawford to third, maybe they pitch around Gillaspie to set up a force at every base and pitch to Bumgarner (assuming Panik still walks). Or, they could pitch around Panik and set up a double play for Gillaspie, making Familia pitch him more carefully.

If Panik doesn’t take the walk, the Mets likely work around Gillaspie again to get to Bumgarner, and potentially force Bruce Bochy‘s hand. Conventional wisdom would call for a pinch hitter, getting Bumgarner out of the game and going into the bullpen. Jarrett Parker was on deck, after all.

If Panik gets a base hit and moves Crawford to third, maybe that goes back to the Pagan bunt scenario. They could walk Gillaspie to load the bases and get a force anywhere while also possibly getting Bumgarner pulled.

Instead, only third base was open with one out. Mets’ manager Terry Collins couldn’t have Gillaspie walked, moving the go-ahead run to third base with one out. Familia had to pitch to the eight hitter, and again it worked out perfectly.

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If Familia throws to his location, or even a different pitch, the result is most likely different. Gillaspie hit .262 in the regular season, but hit .353 against fastballs that came in 95 mph or faster.

There’s a lot of “if”s for this scenario. So many things could have happened. But only one thing actually did happen. The stars aligned perfectly. The guys in front of Gillaspie all had the exact right result. Familia missed his spot and put it right where Gillaspie wanted it. The fastball hitter didn’t miss. Everything worked out just fine, and Gillaspie’s name will forever live on in Giants’ lore.