So, on a San Francisco night swollen with a vocal sellout crowd, twirling orange towels primed to cheer the Giants' first National League West title in seven years, maybe only Gonzalez was capable of shoving the celebration south, hitting a three-run home run against Matt Cain(notes) early on that enabled the San Diego Padres to exhale and remain in the playoff chase for at least another day. San Diego trails the San Francisco Giants by two games with two to play, and it pulled within one game of the Atlanta Braves in the wild-card race.
Gonzalez wasn't traded last offseason for this very moment. Gonzalez wasn't unloaded at the midseason trading deadline for this very moment. Still, unless the cash-poor Padres reach the playoffs, keeping Gonzalez all season rather than fetching prospects for him will have been a mistake. The team he personifies needed him to deliver, and deliver he did in the 6-4 victory.
The blast obscured several uncharacteristic defensive misplays at first base by Gonzalez, who wasn't charged with an error but had three balls hit his glove and fall out. The strong Padres relief corps bailed him out, and although the Giants battled back from a 6-0 deficit to make the game interesting, none of Gonzalez's lapses were costly.
''We know when we get an early lead, our bullpen will do the job,'' Gonzalez said. ''One game didn't do anything for us. This was good, but our work isn't over."
He has had pain in his right shoulder much of the season, causing home run droughts and, perhaps, contributing to his shaky defense. About the miscues, which included misplaying a foul popup, failing to catch a one-hop throw from second baseman David Eckstein(notes), fumbling a sharp ground ball and having a line drive glance off his glove, Gonzalez said, ''Maybe my glove is getting old.'' He paused, then added, ''It's not the glove. I need to catch the ball.''
The series resets Saturday at 4 p.m. ET with momentum shifted subtly to San Diego, pressure inched in the Giants' direction. The Padres' losing nine of their previous 15 games doesn't matter; the Giants' winning eight of their last 10 is immaterial. All the Giants have to do is win one ballgame, but any player will acknowledge that winning a ballgame is most difficult when that ballgame must be won.
Must-win situations create pressure, and players feeling pressure force action rather than letting the game come to them. Witness Giants baserunner Freddy Sanchez(notes) dashing pell-mell from first base with no one out in the ninth on Aubrey Huff's(notes) drive to right field. Will Venable(notes) raced over to catch the ball near the wall, and Sanchez had no chance of getting back to the base. The double play deflated a crowd revived when the Giants rebounded from a six-run deficit.
''Put a tent over this circus,'' one fan yelled.
''Isn't this just like the Giants?'' said another.
San Francisco fans have never celebrated a World Series title since the Giants moved west from New York in 1958. They aren't as fatalistic as Chicago Cubs fans, but they can turn from adoration to disgust with startling rapidity. It will take a tenacious effort to keep their interest throughout the game Saturday, and tenacity isn't the first word that leaps to mind when Giants starter Barry Zito's(notes) name is mentioned.
No, the first word is overcompensated. Zito is the highest-paid Giant by far, having signed a seven-year, $126 million deal four years ago. The next word might be hip. Zito is always the coolest guy in the room, and the Giants even utilize him in a promotion where he strums a popular song on guitar over the JumboTron and a fan tries to guess the song by singing along.
On the mound, the song has remained the same – and it's off-key. Zito has three wins in his last 25 starts, took the loss in seven consecutive outings from mid-August to mid-September and last pitched into the seventh inning 10 starts ago. His hot start – his ERA was under 3.00 until the first week of June – is a distant memory.
Turning in a strong performance Saturday to send the Giants to the playoffs would go a long way toward vindicating Zito. This is what he was signed to do, to be a difference-maker.
Just like Adrian Gonzalez.