SAN FRANCISCO -- As the Padres' season sailed off the cliff in September, it should have come with a warning label. Caution: These bats are for decorative purposes only.
|Gonzalez: 'It's great for today. But we've still got to do it again tomorrow. One game doesn't do anything for us right now.' (Getty Images)|
But as the long, hot summer dissolves into one final, furious weekend, you knew it wouldn't go dark without some twist, some turn, somehow.
Leave it to baseball's biggest overachievers-turned-wallflowers to provide that Friday night, using their fingertips to pull themselves partially up from their shallow grave with a 6-4 season-saver over the poised-to-clinch Giants in the most unlikely of ways.
Before Friday, Giants starter Matt Cain was more lethal than Raid, going 3-0 with a 0.82 ERA over his past three starts.
Before Friday, the Padres mostly used their bats as accessories, scoring a total of five runs over their past 43 innings.
So with 42,409 stuffing AT&T Park on a night the Giants were looking to snag their first NL West title since 2003, what happens?
Ryan Ludwick blasts a Cain change-up for a homer in the second.
"Relaxed everybody," Padres second baseman David Eckstein said. "These type of situations, you get on the board first, you're like, 'OK, here we go.'
Adrian Gonzalez belts a three-run answered prayer over the center-field fence in the third.
"We haven't had one of those in awhile," manager Bud Black said. "The last big one we had was Ludwick in the ninth inning in St. Louis [on Sept. 18] and it won the game.
"You pitch well and get a hit like that, you usually win. We've pitched well over the last month."
So, go ahead. Fill in the rest of that sentence.
"We haven't been getting enough of these to get the lead, or to stretch the lead," Black said. "And that, in a nutshell, is what's been happening."
Atlanta's loss already was in the books when the Padres and Giants cranked it up by McCovey Cove. All the Giants have to worry about is getting one win. They do that, they clinch. They've still got Saturday and Sunday, by the way, to bring home that win.
The Padres pretty much must run the table now to get to the postseason.
Which is why Gonzalez's reappearance A) Could not have come at a more opportune time, and, B) Will be one heck of a welcome boost if this means he's about to blast off.
From Human Trade Rumor to Local Hero as the Padres not only exceeded expectations, but obliterated them, Gonzalez has come up empty just when the Padres needed him most.
Before re-introducing himself on a cool Friday night by the Bay in a hot stretch run, Gonzalez had slugged only one home run since Sept. 15, and just three since Aug. 26.
When he deposited Cain's 93 mph fastball far over the right-field wall, he had just one homer in his past 57 plate appearances.
"I've worked on hitting the ball down and away in the cage," Gonzalez said. "Staying through the ball. I've been coming off of the ball."
There are those around the club who suspect his right shoulder, on which he receives daily pre-game treatment, is inhibiting both his swing and his defense.
He hurt the shoulder back in May while diving for a ball in Houston. While he concedes it "flared up" back then, he says it didn't last long and the Padres training staff has done a marvelous job.
But he also has admitted that the soreness robbed him of his power swing and he had to make concessions afterward. Most notably, he started going the other way, toward left field, which has helped boost his batting average (.297 now, .277 last year) but has not done much for his home run output (31 now, 40 last year).
Meanwhile, his defense has been unusually sloppy. In the eighth inning alone Friday, he missed Mike Fontenot's hard line drive to start the inning, allowing the Giants to put their leadoff man on base while the Padres were clinging to the 6-4 lead. He just didn't get his glove hand up in time to stab it. That his right shoulder was involved only heightened suspicion.
Three batters later, David Eckstein ranged up the middle to grab a Cody Ross ground ball, but Gonzalez couldn't pick Eckstein's one-hopper throw. Again, a play Gonzalez, who won a Gold Glove last year, usually makes.
Gonzalez would have none of it afterward.
"There is nothing wrong with my shoulder," he said flatly, adding that he is not presently even taking any anti-inflammatories.
Black concedes that the shoulder "has been an issue to a certain extent at times during the year."
"I'm sure he's not feeling the best, but that's one thing he would never admit to," Eckstein said. "He's a lot like Scott Rolen. Scotty would never tell you."
If the Padres are to pull off the improbable here this weekend in the teeth of orange rally towels and a city ready to pop its cork, they're going to have to have more of the same from Gonzalez and Ludwick.
Asked afterward whether he remembered the last time Gonzalez and Ludwick homered in the same game, Black couldn't.
It's because, as it turns out, they never had. Since arriving in San Diego in the trade with St. Louis on Aug. 1, Ludwick has just six homers. And we just went through Gonzalez's recent power outage.
Which is why it's no surprise that, upon his return to the jubilant Padres' dugout following his trip around the bases, he was greeted by catcher Nick Hundley's good-natured teasing: "About time you do something!"
"I know," Gonzalez responded.
Yes. Before the Padres completely flatline, for their sake, it's about time he did something. And Ludwick. And anybody else in their dugout carrying a Louisville Slugger. On the seven-game homestand that just ended (and nearly killed the Padres), Gonzalez and Ludwick combined to go 5-for-48 with one RBI.
So, for a team that had not scored five runs combined over its past 22 innings, a 5-0 lead just 15 batters into the game was Grand Canyon-esque.
"It's great for today," Gonzalez said. "But we've still got to do it again tomorrow. One game doesn't do anything for us right now.
"We came in looking for three wins. We've got one-third of it."