09/29/07 10:06 PM ET
Irony strikes down Padres
Gwynn Jr. helps derail dad's former team in playoff hunt
The situation looked oh so promising for the Padres. In the ninth inning of the 161st game of the season, they were one strike away from qualifying for the postseason.
The man on the mound was the most reliable closer in the history of closing, Trevor Hoffman. The man at the plate for the Milwaukee Brewers was Tony Gwynn Jr., son the of Padres' Hall of Famer. On the face of it, decided edge to San Diego.
The all-time saves leader on one side, the younger Gwynn on the other, Hoffman was seeking his 525th career save. Tony Jr., 24, runs very well, and is a superior defensive outfielder. But he has been up and down between Triple-A Nashville and Milwaukee this season, because he could not find playing time in an outfield crowded with more experienced players, players with more apparent offensive potential. Coming to this moment, he was hitting .254 in 122 at-bats this season.
He was pinch-hitting with two outs and teammate Corey Hart on second, the Padres leading, 3-2. The count went to 2-2 on Gwynn. One more strike, one more out of any sort, and the Padres would clinch at least the National League Wild Card berth.
Gwynn had not looked particularly dangerous swinging through a pitch up in the zone for strike two, but he looked like somebody especially good on the 2-2 pitch. It was low, out of the zone, but he turned on it and lifted it down the line in right. His speed turned this hit into a triple.
The game was tied. The Brewers eventually prevailed in 11 innings, 4-3. But it was the Hoffman vs. Gwynn Jr. matchup that turned the outcome. And this was a player, a son of a prominent teammate, known from childhood to Trevor Hoffman.
"It was quite ironic," Padres manager Bud Black said.
Everybody involved agreed that Hoffman had typically made a good pitch, but that Gwynn Jr. had simply done an outstanding job of hitting.
"They had some good at-bats," Black said. "Tony had a similar at-bat to what Hart had. Tony got a pitch that looked to be out of the strike zone down, and flicked it down the right-field line. It was a pretty good pitch. I think it was a ball."
This was a deeply disappointing moment for the Padres, particularly for the closer. This is Trevor Hoffman's time. Typically, he had only blown five of 47 save opportunities before this game. And everything was magnified by the circumstances surrounding this ninth-inning situation.
"It is extremely frustrating when you're on the brink of something like that," Hoffman said.
In his postgame comments, Hoffman persistently referred to Gwynn Jr. as Anthony. "He goes by 'Tony,' but I still know him as 'Little Anthony,'" Hoffman explained.
Hoffman was the one person who wasn't on board with the irony angle. That was understandable given his position, but he also seemed to believe that labeling this episode as ironic took something away from the younger Gwynn.
"I have a lot of respect for Anthony," Hoffman said. "I don't know if it is ironic. Anthony is a big leaguer in his own right. He was put in a situation where he could do something positive for his ballclub, and he did."
The irony is beyond that. It is the fact that the son of the greatest player in the history of the San Diego franchise just kept the Padres from clinching a trip to the postseason. Gwynn Jr. has significant talent in his own right, but if his name were Tony Smith, this would still be a very painful loss, but it wouldn't be an ironically painful loss.
The good news for the Padres was that despite this painful loss -- ironic or not -- they still can clinch the NL Wild Card berth with a victory on Sunday.
"We'll be all right," Black said. "We've had tough losses before, and our guys always seem to respond. We've done it all year. Even just walking around the clubhouse after the game, the guys are fine."
Jake Peavy, who will next be starting either a Wild Card tiebreaker or Game 1 of the NLDS, echoed that sentiment.
"We've bounced back all year," Peavy said. "This is just going to make it sweeter when we finally do clinch that playoff spot."
It was oh so close to being clinched on Saturday. And then the San Diego Padres had victory snatched from their grasp by a fellow named Tony Gwynn Jr. It will be up to the Padres on Sunday to make this merely a fascinating footnote to their season, instead of the moment that wrecked their season.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.