To Last Drop, Bobby Cox's Braves Just Good Enough for Postseason
Not just because it got him to his record 16th postseason before he retires. But because of how they did it.
"We try hard," Cox said after an 8-7 nail-biting defeat of the Phillies that guaranteed the Braves at least one more game -- and, once the Padres eventually lost to the Giants, the National League wild-card berth.
"This team is the hardest-working, hardest-trying team we've ever had here. They're fun to manage, actually."
Except that this Atlanta club liked to make Cox wait. The Braves' 25 wins in their final at-bat led the majors, and their 45 come-from-behind victories were most in the National League.
So no one should be surprised they went to the last day of the season to see if they went to the playoffs, and even then it went past the end as they waited another 2 1/2 hours for the Padres-Giants result.
"Why wouldn't it?" said Tim Hudson, who went seven innings for Sunday's win. "It's just kind of our nature, I guess, better late than never.
"We busted our tail all year. ... It may not look too great for us at times, but we somehow find a way to pull it out."
Losses Friday and Saturday wiped out the Braves' two-game wild-card lead. But on Sunday they took advantage of the Phillies' pitching tuneups to finally get some hits, including a four-run fourth.
"I've just always felt," Chipper Jones said, "no matter how bad things got here in September, this team was destined, this team had gone too far to let it slip away."
This is a team that dealt with so many injuries (Jones, Martin Prado, Kris Medlen, Jair Jurrjens) and disappointing performances (Troy Glaus, Yunel Escobar, Melky Cabrera, Nate McLouth) that only two players from the Opening Day lineup also started Sunday: Jason Heyward and Brian McCann.
This is a team that lost nine straight in April, and no team since the '82 Braves had a losing streak that long and made the playoffs.
"They came together as a squad better than any I've been around," general manager Frank Wren said.
Cox has enjoyed the roller coaster.
"I think he really and truly loves this team," Jones said. "I've seen Bobby smile a lot more this year than in years past."
With Jones and Prado out, journeyman Brooks Conrad became the starting third baseman. Except after he made throwing errors Friday and Saturday that led to six unearned runs in a pair of losses, Cox on Sunday moved him to second base, swapping him with Omar Infante.
Typical Cox move. It wasn't because he had lost faith in Conrad, he said, but to try to help Conrad relax.
"I don't think he's slept in two days, probably," Cox said before the game.
Conrad and Infante both made errors Sunday, but Conrad had a pair of RBI singles, the first tying the game in the fourth inning. And Infante had a two-run triple.
"It was a big turn of emotions for the whole team," said Conrad, drenched in Domaine Ste. Michelle instead of night sweat.
"When we had to do it, we got it done. ... We wait till the last day to get it done. I guess it's kind of our style. Drama queens, I guess."
It wasn't just the unknowns who came through just in time. Closer Billy Wagner -- who, like Cox, has said this is his final season -- got his first four-out save since May 2008.
Like many Braves wins, and their season, it didn't come easy.
Wagner had pestered Cox all year to use him in the eighth inning when needed, but before Sunday, Wagner had not warmed up in the eighth this season.
Finally he got his chance. He allowed Wilson Valdez's RBI single and Ben Francisco's two-run double, and suddenly Atlanta's lead was just 8-7. Then Wagner walked Jayson Werth.
"You screw this up and you go home," Wagner thought to himself, "and always be a goat."
But Wagner, already having thrown 18 pitches, dug deep for more. He had trouble commanding his fastball, which was topping out at 96 mph, but realized with the shadows over home plate, the hitters had trouble picking up his slider.
Wagner struck out Raul Ibañez to end the eighth and struck out the side -- all looking -- in the ninth.
"I pitch like I've got nothing to lose," Wagner said after throwing 37 pitches, his most since Aug. 30, 2007.
"To be able to walk off the field in the last regular-season game and hand (Cox) the ball, that's like the greatest thing. The only thing that better than that would be to hand him the ball after the World Series. That would be the greatest accomplishment of my career."
Funny how things work. Cox's final postseason clincher was much like the one that started the run for which he will be remembered most -- 14 straight playoff trips, 1991-2005.
"It's crazy," Ron Gant said as he thought back 19 years.
On the next-to-last day of the '91 season, the Braves defeated the Astros and then gathered on the infield at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to watch a game from San Francisco on the scoreboard. The Giants beat the Dodgers, clinching the NL West for the Braves.
"It's pretty much the same scenario," said Gant, who played for Atlanta in 1991 and now hosts the pregame show. "It's nerve-wracking. It was tense, but it was fun also."
This time, the Braves watched the Giants in the clubhouse as a few hundred fans stayed in the stands through a postgame REO Speedwagon show and the West Coast game.
At 7:30 p.m., Cox walked back on the field to chants of "Bob-by! Bob-by!" He tipped his cap to the fans, got doused with beer by players and got hoisted on the shoulders of Derrek Lee and Peter Moylan.
Down to Game 162 of his final season, Cox was the same man -- steady, optimistic, modest, relaxed (until an umpire missed a call).
A couple hours before Sunday's first pitch, he did what he always does before a home game: hang out in a little room behind the dugout, watching golf on TV and BSing with Braves broadcasters.
At one point during the session, Cox's phone rang. It was his wife, worried about the 36 people coming over to their house Sunday night.
"We win, we might stick around," Cox said. "Got anybody to pick up the ribs?"
They won. He stuck around.
"They won't ruin," he said of the ribs.
Nor has his season.
Cox this weekend admitted he will miss the game when the end of his career comes. It's been his life, he said, going back to when he'd gather kids off the street to organize a game.
He'd end up, back then, with a team much like this Braves one.
"Sitting back and watching, I've never been prouder of the guys," Jones said. "Because they are ballplayers, and they are fighting for everything they get."