Commentary

Gwynn Jr. spoils clincher for San Diego

Originally Published: September 29, 2007
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com

MILWAUKEE -- The boy Padres players always called "Anthony" was just 10 years old when his favorite team acquired a future Hall of Fame closer. The boy used to play football in the outfield with the closer, run conditioning drills with the closer and, most important, study the closer's tendencies, as he fine-tuned one of the best changeups in the history of baseball.

PENNANT PULSE
Top NL pennant race stories from Saturday:
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For more on the pennant races, see Hunt for October.

And when it came time for the boy who is now a grown man to break the hearts of his hometown team, it was the closer whom he was asked to do it against. With the game on the line Saturday and the Padres' postseason berth one strike away, Tony Gwynn Jr. dug in and hit one of Trevor Hoffman's famous changeups for a run-scoring triple to right field. The save was blown, the game was tied and Gwynn stood on third base in a position no one else has ever quite been in.

"It's kind of awkward," said Gwynn, whose team was eliminated from the playoffs the night before. "You grow up rooting for the Padres your whole entire life and now you're in a situation where you can possibly hurt their chances getting into the playoffs.

"They ruined our chances, so I guess this is our way of kind of getting them back."

I knew what his tendencies were, but everybody knows what his tendencies are and it still doesn't seem to work out for most people.

-- Tony Gwynn Jr. on Trevor Hoffman

The Brewers went on to win 4-3 in 11 innings, denying San Diego the chance to clinch a postseason berth, while assuring Milwaukee of finishing above .500 for the first time since 1992. The Padres can still clinch the wild card with a win Sunday, and they'll start Brett Tomko, who is 2-0 with a 3.52 ERA since joining the club at the beginning of September. The Padres will face Jeff Suppan, who is 3-2 with a 3.45 ERA over his last seven starts and who helped pitch the Cardinals to a World Series title last season.

But all those details aside, it was the ninth-inning, two-out, two-strike changeup Gwynn hit against his father's only team, and against one of Dad's former teammates, that left the most profound imprint.

"It is quite ironic that it was Junior," Padres manager Bud Black said.

Indeed. Tony Gwynn Sr. spent his entire 20-year career in San Diego -- including nine alongside Hoffman -- and entered the Hall of Fame this summer a Padre. He's so popular they erected a statue of him to greet fans as they enter Petco Park. He raised his son in the city, in the clubhouse, and with the burden of being the offspring of one of the game's all-time best pure hitters.

Hoffman had to face all that history, all that emotion, and all that intensity, coupled with trying to put his team in the playoffs, against a Brewers squad that still had goals of its own.

"As tight a ballgame as it is, your emphasis is winning the ballgame and executing pitches," Hoffman said.

And he did just that, he said, throwing a 2-2 changeup down in the zone. Yet he couldn't match Gwynn's scouting reports, which were far more valuable than the sheets of paper on which players normally rely.

"Just watching him pitch for so long I knew his tendencies were a little different with runners on base than with nobody on," said Gwynn, who added his father is never conflicted about whom he roots for in this situation. "I knew what his tendencies were, but everybody knows what his tendencies are and it still doesn't seem to work out for most people."

The Padres put Hoffman in that position because of Adrian Gonzalez, who drove in all three runs, including a run-scoring single in the seventh that made it 3-2. But the Brewers would not quit. When rookie Vinny Rottino hit the game-winning single to score Ryan Braun, teammates flew out of the dugout, first mobbing Rottino, and then seeking the main object of their affection, Gwynn.

Trevor Hoffman
Morry Gash/AP PhotoTrevor Hoffman and the Padres were a strike away from a playoff berth when Tony Gwynn delivered a game-tying triple.
Afterward, Hoffman couldn't quite call the matchup ironic; he instead labeled it frustrating while admitting to feeling conflicted because of his relationship with both junior and senior.

A reporter asked if his feelings were at all tempered because it was Tony Gwynn Jr.

"That's a tough question," said a solemn Hoffman. "I have a lot of respect for Anthony. I know he goes by Tony, but I still call him 'Little Anthony' … we're working toward winning a division, a wild-card berth. My job is to get outs."

As strange as this scene was, it was not the first time the two players met. Gwynn, a second-round pick by the Brewers in 2003, played his first game in San Diego this spring when on May 27 he entered a 3-0 game in the ninth to face Hoffman. Gwynn hit a fastball for a single, but the Brewers lost the game.

Hoffman admitted to feeling nervous when facing Gwynn, who in 1993 was the same age as Hoffman's oldest son is now.

"It's something unlike I've ever experienced in the game," Hoffman told the San Diego Union-Tribune after the game. "I'm staring down the barrel, trying not to look at him, and all I could think about is my [three] little guys now, playing in the outfield [before games], and thinking that's where we started."

Gwynn, who was playing as a professional for the first time in the town where his father built a legacy, echoed Hoffman's feeling of unease.

"I'm sure it was weird for him as well as it was weird for me," Gwynn told the newspaper. "Him watching me grow up as long as he did, and now he's throwing a baseball at me."

But all that weirdness was out the window on Saturday. Gwynn said he was grateful for having faced Hoffman earlier this season, and Hoffman said those thoughts and emotions didn't come into play on Saturday.

This time everything was different: the situation, the ballpark, the stakes.

The only thing that remained unchanged was the name on the back of the jersey.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

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