ST. LOUIS -- Breaking into the big leagues with the mid-aughts Rangers was not always fun for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who never experienced winning baseball in Texas. Being shipped off to San Diego and immediately scoring a playoff berth? Now that was enjoyable -- until the Cardinals made quick work of the Padres in the first round.
Then came four straight years without playoff ball in San Diego and a September collapse during Gonzalez's first season in Boston -- all of which was about as pleasant as it sounds.
So pardon Gonzalez if he is relishing the Dodgers' playoff run this season, catching fire at just the right time in the National League Championship Series.
This October he is having fun again.
"You're in the playoffs, you've got to have fun," Gonzalez said. "If you're not having fun in the playoffs, then you don't deserve to be here."
Typically so businesslike in his approach, studying video for hours on end before games, Gonzalez is suddenly an instigator. He is celebrating big plays by pantomiming mouse ears in mock response to Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright's accusations of "Mickey Mouse" behavior on the field. He is yukking it up after games in the clubhouse, perhaps because of the influence of flamboyant locker neighbors Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig.
But most of all, Gonzalez is hitting, which makes relaxation -- particularly in the pressure cooker of October -- that much easier.
His pair of home runs in NLCS Game 5 at Dodger Stadium sent everyone back to St. Louis, where the Dodgers will play on Friday (5:30 p.m. PT on TBS) in an attempt to force Game 7. And although the Cardinals would start perennial Cy Young candidate Wainwright in that deciding game, the Dodgers would counter with a lineup that maybe -- just maybe -- is finally hitting its stride.
Credit Gonzalez for that. Among NL players with at least 25 plate appearances this postseason, Gonzalez's .343 batting average ranks third behind Puig and Ramirez. His .395 on-base percentage is fourth, his .657 slugging mark is second, and his three home runs and seven RBIs are each tied for second. Counting his brief playoff experience in San Diego, his .990 OPS ranks 29th all-time among players with at least 55 postseason trips to the plate.
For a Dodgers team crossing its fingers daily while awaiting medical updates on Ramirez and Andre Ethier, that sort of production has been nothing short of critical.
"It seems that he's kind of stepped up here," manager Don Mattingly said. "Maybe the fact that Hanley has not been able to do what he's been doing in the past, Adrian feels that responsibility. Maybe it's the time of year. He's getting more attention for it, but he's been doing this all year long for us."
Just not like this. Though Gonzalez has been mostly productive since coming over in last summer's blockbuster trade with the Red Sox, he has hardly resembled the player he used to be. Formerly a fearsome slugger capable of going deep to all fields at any time -- he once hit 40 homers despite playing home games at Petco Park, which emasculates most left-handed hitters -- Gonzalez is admittedly changed since 2010 shoulder surgery. He has sacrificed patience and power for plate coverage, hitting more line drives but fewer homers than he did during his prime.
Still, he can punish a mistake, as Cardinals pitchers Joe Kelly and John Axford learned during Game 5. He can also have a little fun.
Gonzalez is 31 now, and with the exception of Cardinals outfielder Carlos Beltran, who is still searching for his first World Series berth at 36, he understands the rarity of these opportunities perhaps as well as anyone.
"It's been our personality, it seems like," Mattingly said of the Gonzalez-led Dodgers. "As we kind of got on our roll, these guys have a great time playing together, and I think it's just as simple as that."
For a brief moment after Game 5, Gonzalez did revert to his businesslike self, saying that he planned to retire his Mickey Mouse celebrations to avoid answering any more questions about them. That's when Carl Crawford spoke up, ribbing Gonzalez and saying, "Once you start it, you've got to keep going."
"Hey, if Carl wants them," Gonzalez shot back, laughing, "it's for him. Not for anybody else."
The entire room chuckled at that, even if it may not be entirely true. This postseason run is one Gonzalez is quite obviously cherishing for himself.