Gwynn's death saddens Cardinals

News-DemocratJune 16, 2014 

— Tony Gwynn was such a good hitter that pitchers often would resort to throwing fastballs down the middle.

After all, nothing else seemed to work.

"We even tried telling him what was coming, maybe thinking that would help," Cardinals manager and former catcher Mike Matheny said of Gwynn, 54, the San Diego Padres Hall of Famer who died Monday of cancer. "The guy was going to get his hits. That's all there is to it."

It was Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux who first suggested that pitching Gwynn in the middle of the plate was the best strategy. Gwynn, however, batted .415 (39-for-94) with no strikeouts in 107 plate appearances against Maddux.

"I remember being in a meeting with some of our pitchers, and they must have been with Maddux at some point because they thought that was the best way --throwing it in the middle, half as hard as you can, and hope for the best because your best stuff wasn't good enough to get him out," Matheny said. "He was at a different level."

Cardinals broadcaster and former pitcher Ricky Horton remembered a time at Busch Stadium II when he threw two consecutive pitches inside against Gwynn. Both were past him, but he flicked them foul over the Padres' third-base dugout.

Horton went off the plate and Gwynn, as he often did, made solid contact. Horton can't remember whether it was a hit, but it hardly mattered.

"I remember at that moment thinking, 'I give up,'" said Horton, against whom Gwynn was 10-for-25 (.400) with no strikeouts.

"You didn't fear him in the classic sense of pitching to a Mike Schmidt or an Andre Dawson of that era, who were imposing guys at the plate," Horton said. "But you were so befuddled."

Matheny agreed.

"He turned into that (type of) hitter because he realized it would make him successful," Matheny said. "He could take just about any pitch and shoot it over the infield wherever he wanted to. There were a couple of times when we tried to capitalize on the inside part of the plate, and he had more power than I think anybody understood. He just decided to use it when he wanted to.

"Just a great hitter. Very, very difficult to pitch against when you have that kind of hand-eye coordination, that kind of bat speed and that kind of approach. He made a great mark on this game. ... It's a sad day, especially for all the fans who followed him so closely and (for whom) he made an impact in San Diego. It's a big loss."

Horton said he never tested Maddux's theory against Gwynn.

"Maybe I should have," he cracked. "I just tried to go in and out on him and hope he was guessing wrong. It really didn't make any difference because I didn't throw hard enough to really fool him. He had the ability to take a pitcher's best pitch and waste it, just flip it over the opposing dugout. Then he would come back and wait for you to make a mistake. He was frustrating to pitch to in that regard."

Horton predicted that Gwynn, who had a .338 lifetime average and batted .394 in 1994, would have thrived against the shifts employed against some hitters. Of course, no team would have used a shift against Gwynn, who hit from foul line to foul line.

"Tony Gwynn hitting against the modern-day shifts might hit .400 because he had the ability to hit balls where people were not," Horton said. "You don't hit .394 without knowing how to use the whole field and without having a great idea how to handle all kinds of pitch selections. Whatever anybody had, he could hit.

"He was terrific with the bat; he was born to hit. He was an incredible two-strike hitter. He knew the plate better than anybody in that era. From a performance standpoint, he had such an incredible gift to be able to hit. But you just loved being around Tony. It's a sad day, really, for all of baseball. I've never met anybody that's ever said anything bad about Tony Gwynn."

Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist was a teammate of Gwynn's in 1990 and 1991.

"It's tragic somebody has to (die) that young," Lilliquist said. "He's going to be missed by a lot of people. He was just a tremendous human being."

Lilliquist said hitting was Gwynn's favorite pastime, but he also recalled Gwynn being an outdoorsman.

"The man loved to fish; he loved to bass-fish," Lilliquist said. "When he wasn't hitting, he loved fishing."

Contact reporter David Wilhelm at dwilhelm@bnd.com or 239-2665. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidMWilhelm.

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