Gillaspie makes great strides filling in at third

Gillaspie makes great strides filling in at third

NEW YORK -- Conor Gillaspie is ready for his close-up, which has double meaning for a third baseman forced to play in uncomfortable proximity to hitters. Not to mention the 60 feet, 6 inches separating him from pitchers.

Gillaspie has excelled both defensively and offensively since Eduardo Nunez, San Francisco's primary third baseman, was sidelined Sept. 25 with a strained right hamstring.

His bat was on display in the Giants' 3-0 victory in the NL Wild Card Game on Wednesday, as his three-run home run in the ninth inning stunned the Mets at Citi Field.

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Oct. 5 SF 3, NYM 0 video

The Giants now advance to face the Cubs in Game 1 of the NL Division Series on Friday at Wrigley Field at 9 p.m. ET on FS1.

The home run was, essentially, an extension of how well Gillaspie has hit recently. Platooning with the right-handed-hitting Kelby Tomlinson, Gillaspie helped fill the void that Nunez's absence created. In the regular season's final week, Gillaspie batted .500 (7-for-14) with two doubles, a home run, four runs scored and five RBIs. He hit safely in each of the five games he played.

Gillaspie received a chance to entrench himself even more firmly in his prominent role when he started at third base for the Giants in Wednesday's National League Wild Card Game against the New York Mets.

Gillaspie maintained his hitting stroke despite being used as a pinch-hitter during most of the season. The left-handed-batting Gillaspie hit a creditable .216 (11-for-51) off the bench. That plethora of pinch-hit at-bats reflected the confidence he inspired from manager Bruce Bochy. As the season elapsed, Gillaspie prompted that same faith from fellow Giants.

"Conor's definitely a team favorite," catcher Buster Posey said. "... Whether he's pinch-hitting or possibly coming in later in the game when Nunez was playing every day, I think that probably helped him stay ready for being able to step in."

At 29, Gillaspie's a little old to serve an apprenticeship. However, in his second stint with the Giants, he has proven he more thoroughly understands what's expected of him, regardless of the duty he performs.

Earlier in the season, when Gillaspie realized Bochy would employ him largely to pinch-hit, he approached outfielder Gregor Blanco, San Francisco's most proficient reserve, and asked for advice on how to handle the challenge of receiving one at-bat each game.

"He's kind of the model guy that I look up to as far as how to handle a pinch-hitting role," said Gillaspie, a sandwich Draft pick (37th overall) by the Giants in 2008. "When I first got here, we went over some things as far as getting ready and what to expect. And I won't lie: The first couple of weeks I wasn't sure if I could do it. I was like, 'Man, this is a whole different game.'"

Improving his fielding skills was virtually a revelation for Gillaspie, who developed a reputation for being a subpar defender while he spent 2013-15 with the White Sox and Angels. Signed as a free agent by the Giants shortly before Spring Training began this year, Gillaspie worked feverishly with bench coach Ron Wotus, who was directly responsible for upgrading the defensive prowess of Pablo Sandoval and Matt Duffy.

Noticing that Gillaspie's release point on his throws was inconsistent at best, Wotus adjusted his arm angle. Now, Gillaspie throws either overhand or sidearm, whichever feels comfortable when he's in the flow of making a play.

"Confidence is a huge part of every single aspect of this game. And I worked really hard with Wotus on that," said Gillaspie, who commanded attention when he tumbled over the dugout railing and a television camera to make a spectacular catch of a Chase Utley popup Sunday against the Dodgers. "Obviously I have a long way to go, but I do feel like the hard work that I put in during the year has paid off somewhat."

Wotus didn't argue.

"He has relentlesly worked on his defense," Wotus said, "to the point where he told me he likes taking ground balls."

Chris Haft has covered the Giants since 2005, and for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.