I’ve made no secrets about my appreciation for Conor Gillaspie, who as a slow-footed platoon player capable of rapping out average production (still .275/.336/.438 against righties this year!), is perhaps limited in his profile of what he can offer, but has been very consistent in his delivery of it.
Most of all, as Matt and I have discussed before, Gillaspie has rarely, if ever, been the source of embarrassment. His compact swing keeps him from looking amateurish, his defensive errors have been mostly simple, standard mistakes that hid any sense of larger, more systemic incompetence or a lack of understanding of what his position was responsible for. Conor was a major leaguer and never stopped looking like one.
So naturally, this evil season being what it is, that was all taken away Tuesday night.
When we first encountered Conor in the first inning, confidence was still high. His shoulders were still warm from that Andre Rienzo hug on Sunday, and he was bold enough to still try things like a sliding pick of a hot grounder off the bat of Andy Dirks.
It’s the sort of move that looks slick and saves time when it’s pulled off, but raises questions about whether a more humble goal of just blocking the thing would have been better when it’s botched. Not that it would have made a difference on a bases-empty single, but the seed of doubt is a powerful organism once planted.
Not that Conor had much time to reflect, since the very next at-bat saw Miguel Cabrera chop a slow-dribbler down the third base line. Gillaspie rushed in for the barehanded pick’n'throw that we’ve seen countless times, but whipped it wide of first basemen Paul Konerko in such a way that it reminded how nutty it is that the pick’n'throw has become a routine play. Here’s Gillaspie’s release point.
Jay Cutler would rightly catch hell for this, but he would probably blame his receiver for what transpired.
The ball tailed away from Konerko and into Cabrera, and snuck away just between them, and likely required Konerko to place an erect left arm directly in the path of Cabrera in order to make the snag. Konerko opted for being able to play catch with his grandchildren one day instead. This is not to blame Konerko, of course. He was charged for one too many of Gillaspie’s errors as is.
By the top of the third, after some time has been allotted for thoughts about how the first inning might have gone differently for young Erik Johnson without his defensive blunders, and in the immediate wake of a horrifying Prince Fielder home run that singled this night would bring only pain, Gillaspie had his limitations in stopping the madness thrust in his face once more. Victor Martinez hit a hot smash to his left, and after Conor dived in vain to stop the bleeding and is lying face down in the dirt stewing in what has become, he–just for a moment–lingered…
Two batters later offered a chance for redemption for his throwing arm–a chance to field a hard grounder with men on base and erase the threat before it could further harm his pitcher.
It did not start well. A short hop jumped up and bit him, and he would have to scramble rather than set himself for a redeeming throw. To save time, his brain and muscle conspired to just repeat the same throw from the first inning rather than calculate a new one. That very same two-seamer with arm-side run over to first base.
But Konerko was ready this time! He scrambled up the baseline as if anticipating it, snagged the wayward throw, whipped around and tagged Omar Infante to end–
–the illusion of hope.
The fourth inning brought a bit of a respite. The Tigers blowing out the Sox became a reality far larger than simply Gillaspie’s troubles, Johnson left the game and could only direct his sad eyes toward his third basemen from the dugout and Gillaspie knocked in the Sox’ only run in the bottom half of the frame. The nightmare could have peacefully drifted away into the backdrop of dreary baseball if it cared to.
Another one of those damn throws over with runs on the line. Conor collected himself, established a steadier base and gave himself a good look at the target so that he could…
Again, it’s not a Matt Garza Special he threw down to first. A few inches over and Konerko squeezes it for the out. But “That’s So White Sox” is all about removing the margin for error when it’s needed most. Maybe Gillaspie realized this is how things were progressing, because that fifth inning error brought on his most prominent use of the 1000-yard stare of the night.
Which is a lot more dignified than responding by acting like your clothes are on fire and running into the nearest body of water, a tactic an 11 year-old James employed after allowing two goals in the first five minutes of a youth soccer game (except I never found a body of water, so instead I just wept). Like Conor, I knew my offense was so inept that the game had already been lost.
Anyway…on to the sixth inning, where the fates just began to mock our besieged hero. As we stated in the opening, although the athleticism possessed by nearly every every major leaguer outstrips anyone we come across on a daily basis, Gillaspie does not make his living filling up the highlight reel. When this situation of a Prince Fielder flare presented itself in the sixth…
Who knows what reason there would be to expect anything but sadness?
Chasing that stupid ball into the outfield has to be the worst. “GET BACK HERE, YOU BIG JERK,” you might say. To a ball. While on television.
It’s worth mentioning that on the night, Gillaspie had two of the seven White Sox hits, including their only extra-base knock on the night and that he is hitting .400 so far in September. It’s worth mentioning that because he closed the night in the seventh by charging a short hopper in the infield grass and had the ball climb all the way up his forearm and skip out to left field.
This blurry screenshot makes it seem like the ball is just part of Gillaspie’s jersey that is rebelling, ripping off his sleeve and flying away, which is really not so out of line with how his night went.
Leury Garcia came to replace him in the seventh, but came at a time and score that mirrored typical September bench-emptying rather than a late stab at salvaging Gillaspie’s sanity. As Conor told reporters after the game, he noticed the fates conspiring against him midway through.
“Obviously it was very difficult tonight and I can honesty say that’s probably the worst I’ve ever felt playing defense,” Gillaspie said. “I can’t say that there’s too many days where I’m kind of hoping, ‘Hey, I hope the ball doesn’t get hit (to me).’ ”
That’s a feeling that can linger until it’s beaten away with force, and given how much of this was just breakdowns in execution rather than obviously flawed process getting what it deserves, if Robin Ventura truly believes that Gillaspie can just bounce back from it, he should offer him the opportunity to prove it sooner than later. Gillaspie’s no superstar, but as a guy who make his spot in the order actually count while standing somewhere other than first base, he’s someone they need.
Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan