NEW YORK -- It’s probably safe to say Conor Gillaspie's career wasn't exactly thriving four months ago, but then again, neither was Travis Ishikawa's in the months leading up to the biggest split second of his baseball life.
What is it about the San Francisco Giants that inspires great moments from fringe players?
Like Ishikawa's blast off the St. Louis Cardinals' Michael Wacha two Octobers ago, Gillaspie had an iconic postseason moment, going deep off ace closer Jeurys Familia in the ninth inning for the only runs in the Giants' 3-0 win over the New York Mets in Wednesday night’s National League wild-card game.
"There's just something about this organization, man," said Giants center fielder Denard Span. "It's like every year there's an unsung hero."
This one was almost an unsigned hero. The offers weren't quite flooding in to Gillaspie's agent after he batted .204 for the Los Angeles Angels in bit duty last season, so he figured going home was a good place to start.
The Giants had some interest in a left-handed hitter who could play third base, so general manager Bobby Evans reached out and quickly came to a minor league deal with Gillaspie before spring training. The Giants had drafted Gillaspie in the first round out of Wichita State in 2008. He never took off, so by the time his options expired five years later, they traded him to the Chicago White Sox.
"I made no promises. I didn't promise he'd make the big league club or be added," Evans said. "I just said, 'Give us a chance and we'll give you a chance. He said, 'I want to come back.'"
In April, Gillaspie got the call to the big leagues. By June 15, he was batting .140. Evans began to wonder whether he could afford to continue carrying Gillaspie on his 25-man roster.
"He wore it. It was killing him," Evans said. "I wasn't sure how long he'd get to stay, but (bench coach) Ron Wotus always told [Bruce] Bochy and I, 'I believe in this guy.' He said it countless times."
From then until the final game of the regular season, when the Giants finally clinched the wild card with a win over the Los Angeles Dodgers, Gillaspie's game took off. He had an .831 OPS in those final months. As the rest of the offense slumped, he began to get it together.
The Giants were disappointed when their best base stealer, Eduardo Nunez, hadn't recovered from a strained hamstring to play in a winner-take-all game against a pitcher who struggles to control the running game, Noah Syndergaard. But they weren't that disappointed since Gillaspie had been playing well and bats left-handed.
That's where opportunity met preparation. You know what they say about that juncture.
"Wow, I mean, I'm a lucky guy," Gillaspie said.
He couldn't even recall where Familia's pitch was, other than that it was elevated enough that he could get his bat to it. His swing in the ninth inning that sent the ball over the right-center field wall to drive in Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik was one of the few loud noises in a game dominated by pitching, primarily from Madison Bumgarner, October legend, and Syndergaard, whose stuff was even more electric.
What Gillaspie could -- and was happy to -- talk about was his return to the team he'd been raised in and the culture that has become one of the game's most devastating forces in October. By the end of last October, Gillaspie said, the game had begun to take over his view of himself, affecting his relationships with people in his life.
"This time last year, I was home and I did some soul search, I guess you could say," Gillaspie said. "I realized I had kind of made baseball the No. 1 thing in my life and it's not any more, and I'm proud of that."
The Giants seem to be good for players with self-esteem issues. They have won five straight winner-take-all postseason games. The National League should have taken care of the Giants when they were down, because now there's no saying how far their hard-to-kill ways will take them. Next up is the best team in baseball, the Chicago Cubs, a team that won 16 more regular-season games than the Giants.
Sounds like a fair fight.
"We went through such a rough time in the last month and, yes, we didn't win the division, but I don't think there is a guy in there that doesn't believe in each other," Gillaspie said. "What a great opportunity to be part of this. I'm thankful that I was able to come back here and that they wanted me here."