Had you asked me when I woke up Thursday morning about the best ninth inning I’ve ever seen in my life, I’d have told you about my favorite – a cold Candlestick night in 1985 when the Giants came back from five runs down to beat the Reds on a walk-off home run by Dan Gladden.
But with one swing of the bat by Hector Sanchez, Thursday’s ninth inning shot to No. 1 with a bullet.
Perhaps no other player embodies the struggles of the 2013 Giants better than Sanchez. A surprise last year when he emerged as a solid backup to catcher Buster Posey, this season has been severely different for Sanchez. After dealing with some nagging injuries to start the year, Sanchez saw limited playing time in spring training. When the season started, the effects were obvious. Sanchez was so out of sorts both sides of the ball, he soon was optioned to Triple-A Fresno and replaced on the big-league roster with journeyman Guillermo Quiroz.
When he was recalled on Aug. 8, Sanchez immediately established himself behind the plate by catching Tim Lincecum’s gem in holding the Brewers to one hit through eight shutout innings in a 4-1 Giants win. However, the sophomore backstop still scuffled at the plate, entering a three-game series in Washington saddled with an 0-for-6 slump since rejoining the team.
With pinch hits against the Nationals in consecutive games though, Sanchez has swiftly put himself back on the map. Wednesday night, with the Giants trailing 6-4, Sanchez led off a ninth inning with a two-strike single. The Giants rallied to close the deficit to one run, and only an outstanding diving catch by center fielder Denard Span to rob Hunter Pence of extra bases preserved the win for the Nats.
On Thursday though, Sanchez came to the plate representing the go-ahead run. With two on and two outs, and the Giants trailing 3-1, Sanchez crushed a two-strike offering from Nats closer Rafael Soriano to give the Giants their first late-inning lead since an Aug. 10 win over Baltimore.
The blast ignited the Giants both sides of the ball. In the bottom of the inning, Brandon Crawford made a dazzling diving catch on a line drive off the bat of Bryce Harper to rob the reining National League Rookie of the Year of a leadoff single. Giants closer Sergio Romo ultimately retired the side in order to record his 29th save of the year.
But I still remember that Dan Gladden home run like it was yesterday. The Reds had closer Ted Power on the mound. Power would go on to have the best year of a decade-long career by saving 27 games that season, which at the time ranked fifth all-time among Reds single-season saves leaders. Had he saved one more game, he would have moved into a third-place tie with Ted Abernathy (1967) and Doug Bair (1978).
After trailing 6-1 to start the inning, the Giants sent Gladden to the plate representing the winning run. The spunky leadoff hitter had a signature style of choking up on the bat quite dramatically. Word was he ordered his bats extra long to accentuate this trait to allow him for better bat control. But with two on and two outs, Gladden went for broke, moving his grip all the way to the knob of the bat. And on a 1-2 pitch, Gladden drove a majestic game-winning homer to left to the sound of Candlestick Park’s signature home-run bugle anthem.
Note: The winning pitcher that night was Vida Blue, who was on the postgame in-studio anchor desk after Thursday’s dramatic win. His sidekick Bill Laskey and in-game color commentator Mike Krukow were also in the Giants dugout amid that epic ninth-inning comeback on April 26, 1985.