Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Going Out With His Cleats On

The Atlanta Braves and Bobby Cox celebrate winning the 2010 NL Wild Card spot on October 3, the last game of the season.

Well, Bobby Cox put himself in a league of his own when the Braves made it into the 2010 NLDS against the Giants. He became the first and only manager of the Top 100(!) winningest managers in baseball history to end his career with a postseason appearance. Talk about going out in style.

But it doesn't really help in the Now. The Now hurts. Four great games in the NLDS against the Giants. Four one-run ballgames. The Braves hurt themselves with shoddy fielding, poor hitting, and even injuries. That has been the story all year but, somehow, the 2010 Atlanta Braves always found a way to come back in the end. Until there was no end to come back from anymore.
Their resiliency was perhaps their most amazing fact. You certainly can't say they did not handle their share of adversity.

Was. Past tense. Because it is over now. A lot of things are over. Cox's last chance at a World Series, the surprising season, his career, the career of Billy Wagner, and possibly even the career of Chipper Jones.

To tell you the truth, at the beginning of the season I thought that if the Braves could somehow make it to the postseason one last time for Cox that would be sweet enough. In reality, though, by the time it actually happened we all hoped for more. I am greedy that way. Just like any other true baseball fan.

The postseason started out with a catchy slogan.
11 for 6. That's 11 wins to a World Championship for Bobby Cox who wears No. 6. It was reflective of a great attitude and a high tribute by the team to their manager.

Game One wasn't much to manage, however.
Tim Lincecum dominated the game. 14 strike outs. Come on. No line-up could have hit that guy that night. When a great pitcher has full command of his stuff (like Roy Halladay did with his incredible no-hitter in Philadelphia's NLDS Game One against Cincinnati) nothing else matters much. Pitching can dictate everything. Well, almost. Actually a botched call by an umpire contributed to the Giant's only run. But, that's the way baseball works.

Lincecum's performance overshadowed a very good one by the Braves' Derek Lowe, who
dominated the National League in September and is no small reason the Braves made to the play-offs to begin with. Lowe allowed just one run and struck out six over 5 and one-third innings.

Game Two was a more "manageable" situation. Manageable in the fact that there were a lot of decisions to be made in what turned out to be the last victory of Bobby Cox's career.

I have posted a lot about the Braves this season. I have posted all kinds of different ways of looking at and experiencing baseball. The game-by-game level, the live at the ballpark level, the in-game level, the statistics level, the simulation level, etc. Now, let’s zoom in to Game Two for the critical late-inning substitution level of the game. This is how baseball works at this level.

It is the bottom of the tenth inning. The Braves decided to bring in Troy Glaus after his pinch-hit appearance yielded nothing in the top of the inning. He entered playing third base. The Braves moved Omar Infante to second base. Little decisions can have major results. An extra-inning play-off game is always more tense.

Bobby Cox was already thrown out ages ago, back in the second inning. That was only the third time Cox had been ejected from a postseason game. To go with an all-time record 158 ejections in the regular season (161 total, one short of a complete season). He was screaming at the same stupid umpire that called Giants rookie Buster Posey safe in Game One. Bobby continued to manage the game remotely.

So, the Braves took out Brooks Conrad and placed Glaus at third. Glaus played two-thirds of the season as the Braves everyday first baseman.
He had a monster six weeks in May and June that helped Atlanta move into first place. But, then he went cold. Did nothing. Got bad knees.
Had to play third at AAA Gwinnett on a rehab assignment. So, here he comes into an extra-inning play-off game in a position he pretty much hasn't played regularly since 2008.

The Giants wisely decide to bunt with Edgar Renteria. Glaus falls down trying to make the play. Billy Wagner tried to field the bunt himself, unfortunately, and hurt himself, though he didn’t tell anyone. On the next pitch, the batter luckily bounces the ball directly back to Wagner. Wagner throws him out but then falls to his knees in pain. A torn left oblique. His career might be over. Baseball can be so tragic.

The Braves bring in Kyle Farnsworth who is the wildest pitcher in our bullpen. He is either unhittable or he walks everybody. Farnsworth proceeds to hit the first batter he faces then he walks the next, loading the bases with only one out, a lucky out recorded by the now departed Billy Wagner. Wagner couldn't move, if that ball is hit two feet either way he can't catch it. Who knows what happens then.

At the moment, however, Farnsworth has the Braves in a major jam. A fly ball scores the runner at third base and the game is over. The Giants win. They take a 2-0 game lead in the NLDS before the series heads back to Atlanta.

But, that’s not what happened. Because this is the way baseball works. Instead, Farnsworth gets his shit together and induces a ground ball to Troy Glaus. Glaus could go home with the throw to get the out at the plate but he instinctively decides to attempt to
turn a double-play and end the inning. He fires to Omar Infante. The throw is a little much toward center field and Infante has to reach way out to make the catch but manages to keep his foot on the bag. Infante then bounces way beyond the slide of the Giant runner and fires a strike to Derreck Lee at first base. Lee pumps his fist in the air. The double-play not only keeps the Giants from scoring, it ends the inning.

What gets overlooked here is the great play by Infante turning the double-play on a less than perfect throw by Glaus. Having Infante there (one of the best infielders in baseball) ended the tenth inning and set up
Rick Ankeil’s dramatic home run in the top of the eleventh. If Infante doesn't manage Glaus' throw then a run scores and the Giants win. Glaus went for it all and made it. In that moment Infante very much made Ankeil’s home run possible.

But, that moment could have played out a lot differently all the way around. This is how baseball works. Cox could have decided to leave Infante at third and Conrad at second. Troy Glaus sits on the bench after failing to do anything as a pinch hitter. Renteria probably never bunts at all now. Infante is at third. No reason to. So, he hits away. Wagner pitches to him without ever having to charge for a bunt. Wagner doesn’t tear his oblique. The Braves win the game anyway. There never was a double-play to turn because no batter reached base. Wagner slams the door as he had just done in my presence at Turner Field on October 3. With strikeouts.

But, that’s not what happened. The Braves won the game but they’ve lost Billy Wagner. They come back to Atlanta with the series tied but the turning of the double-play that actually saved them might be only the lucky result of an unlucky decision. If Infante stays at third Wagner probably doesn’t get hurt.

But, we live in the Now. The what-ifs are only an interesting side-effect of the game that plays out in space for real. The Braves won Game Two. They lost Billy Wagner. Cox is having to throw the entire bench into this postseason. So many key players are missing. Chipper Jones. Martin Prado. Jair Jurrjens. Now Wagner. Only two Braves players in the field were in the opening day lineup. Bobby has a different team in October than he had in April. He has to manage in the Now.

On to Game Three. A horribly painful experience. The Braves once more cannot seem to hit the pitching of a Giants starter.
Jonathan Sanchez strikes out 11 batters. Jason Heyward still has no hits for the series. Come on guys. Hit the damn ball! We’re back to the same ol’ same ol’ combo of very little hitting (batting .165 as a team so far in the series) and making errors. Still, we manage to keep the game close. Hudson does a gutsy job of pitching but leaves the game trailing 1-0.

Eric Hinske's dramatic two-run homer seems to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. On comes our closer to future, rookie Craig Kimbrell, who suddenly (because of the loss of Billy Wagner) is the closer of the Now. He gets two outs while walking a batter. He has two-strikes on Freddy Sanchez. The Braves are one strike away from taking a 2-1 lead with a game at home tomorrow night to win the NLDS.

Only that didn't happen. This is the way baseball works. Sanchez connects for a two-out, two-strike bouncer up the middle for a hit. Then Cox calls for a leftie-leftie match-up, which Mike Dunn loses to the Giants’ main RBI guy Aubrey Huff and the game is tied. Then Peter Moylan comes in a gets a sharply hit ground ball to Brooks Conrad that
goes right between his legs. Giants win 3-2. I am in a stunned state of sad silence.

Conrad set a record for most errors in an LDS. The one between his legs should have ended the inning with a 2-2 tie. Everybody is talking about a Braves bullpen meltdown. That's not the case. The Giants did not rip the ball anywhere except for the one between Conrad’s legs. If Conrad cleanly plays the grounder the bleeding is stopped. Except for dominant strikeout pitchers (like Wagner) bullpens are only as good as their defense.

Bobby Cox summed it up very honestly and professionally in the postgame conference. "We're not the best team in baseball. But we can win games and we can compete against any (team) but, we can't afford to make mistakes."

Game Four. Cox has really no choice but to take Conrad out of the line-up. He’s become a head case defensively by now. Infante moves to second and Glaus, weak knees and all, will have to play third base. We just don’t have a lot of depth with Chipper and Prado both out. Cox shuffles his line-up around. Moves the hitless Jason Heyward down to batting sixth (he would have two hits this game) and inserts Matt Diaz batting second.

The game itself was another tug of war.
Lowe pitched even better than in Game One. The Braves had a couple of big hits including a solo home run by all-star Brian McCann to give the Braves a 2-1 lead.

Then came what was perhaps Cox's biggest management decision of the series. In the seventh inning the Giants had runners at first and second with one out. Bobby Cox came out of the dugout but
decided to leave Lowe in after talking to his pitcher. Lowe walked the next batter. Long-story short, the Giants went on to score two runs and take a 3-2 lead.

Cox managed to the bitter end. Every Braves position player made it into some part of some game in this series. He called on AAA call-up
Diory Hernandez to play third base as part of a double switch that brought relief pitcher Jonny Venters into the game while replacing Glaus. When Eric Hinske walked in the bottom of the ninth inning, Cox called upon pitcher Tim Hudson to pinch run in case the Braves could bat him around.

But that didn’t happen. Brain Wilson knuckled down and secured
a tight 3-2 win for the Giants. They advance. For Cox it’s all over.

Afterwards, Turner Field is chanting "Bob-bee! Bob-bee!" So, Cox returns after a moment to the field to tip his hat to the sell-out crowd. Then something rather remarkable happens. The Giants, who are rightfully celebrating on the field, stop and
start applauding Cox. I'm not sure anything like that has ever happened before.

Then came the matter of Cox's final, emotional press conference. I've never seen him get choked up like that before. I can't watch it without tearing up a bit.

Bobby Cox was, to my knowledge, the only manager in baseball that wore actual metal cleats in the dugout just like any player would. He said he just felt more comfortable wearing them with the uniform. He was always known as "a player's manager." Part of that was shown in the decision to talk to Lowe about whether or not to stay in the game instead of going to the bullpen. He was open to what his pitcher had to say. Should he have listened? Tactically, probably not.

But, it's not always about stats and pitch counts. Sometimes it is about how do you feel? What does your gut say? Bobby Cox managed with both his head and his heart. He was as knowledgeable and analytical as anyone. He was fiery and more passionate than most managers. So, in the end, he managed with his heart. He made mistakes. Yet, in doing so, he inspired a team that, by his own admission, "was not the best in baseball." And that team responded with scrappy play and last gasp wins all through the 2010 season.

In the last game of the last postseason of Bobby Cox he threw everything he had at the Giants. He used 19 of 25 players including every position player on the roster. Even Brooks Conrad. This was not an act of desperation. It was a tribute to how much he trusted each of his players for any given situation. It was the kind of attitude that allowed the 2010 spirit of resiliency to flourish in Atlanta.

So, while it is sad that this is the end I choose not to remember Bobby Cox tipping his cap for the final time in his last defeat, both to the Braves fans and the Giants team. I choose instead to remember the image of him in a difficult to find photo that captures his last great moment of triumph on October 3 after Jennifer and I had already made it back to our home from the game. That's the pic at the top of this post scanned from the sports page of a local paper.

Bobby is on the shoulders of his players. They are carrying him, elated, punching the air with "number one" signs. If they were catchers those would be calls for a fastball. Cox is posed like the Pope giving a blessing with his right hand. He his obviously happy. Champaign is spewing in an arch over his head. And he has cleats on.

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