(Updated at 1:40 a.m.)
On the eve of the day his career would be celebrated, Bobby Cox typically wanted to talk about something other than Bobby Cox.
It didn’t matter that a No. 6 had been carved into the center-field grass, or that three of his cousins had made their way from Selma, Calif., or that the 69-year-old Yoda in the Braves’ dugout was surrounded by visiting media members, armed with questions about Cox’s life and career.
“Let’s just win this game,” Cox said at one point.
He has operated his entire career the same. He wants the focus on the game and his players, with him somewhere in the background. In a strange way, he may have gotten his wish.
While Cox will be center stage today, the Braves’ improbable run to the postseason just hit a speed bump Friday night. Jimmy Rollins cracked reliever Mike Dunn’s first pitch in the sixth for a grand slam, and Philadelphia — with its National League East title already secure — went on to bury the Braves 11-5 at Turner Field.
The Braves’ magic number to clinch the National League wild-card berth remained stuck at two. San Diego won at San Francisco, 6-4, closing to within one game of the Braves for the wild card and two games of the Giants in the National League West with two games left.
So much for the comfort factor at Bobby Cox Tribute Day.
The Braves led 1-0 early. They were tied 2-2 through five. Then came the frailties of a team that has long seemed one sneeze away
With two outs and two Phillies on base, catcher Carlos Ruiz hit a ground ball to third. Brooks Conrad surprisingly decided to throw to second for the force instead of first. Omar Infante was late getting over, the throw was wide of the bag and everybody was safe. Peter Moylan issued a bases-loaded walk to Dominic Brown (.217) to give the Phillies a 3-2 lead. Then Dunn replaced Moylan and was schooled on his first pitch to Rollins. Game over.
The clubhouse was quiet afterward. Even the televisions, normally tuned to out-of-town games, were turned off.
Cox was brief. Among his comments: “We messed up in the infield. … With two outs you always go to first. We just made a bad decision.”
If that wasn’t enough, Conrad jumped on the grenade: “No excuses. I let the team down and I feel terrible. I let the team down, I let Bobby down.”
This was a surprise only in the sense that the game meant nothing to the Phillies. But everything the Braves have done this year has been with a sense of drama. Why change now?
They went into the evening knowing there was a chance to clinch their first postseason berth since 2005, but all one could think when looking down on the field was: How?
Starting pitcher Brandon Beachy was an undrafted free agent who started the season in Double A and wasn’t even on the 40-man roster when he was recalled as an emergency starter in Philadelphia 12 days ago. The lineup — of which there have been 106 this season — included only one player hitting over .278. That was Infante, who started the year as a utility player. The averages of the Nos. 4 through 8 hitters ranged from .189 (Nate McLouth) to .258 (Melky Cabrera).
How? Clubhouse chemistry and Cox.
Cox might be going out after the best managing job of his career, even better than the worst-to-first year of 1991. The misguided critics who’ve attacked him this season for the team’s slide never stopped to consider that the team wouldn’t be in this position if not for him.
“Ninety-five percent of the other clubs, if this happens to them, personnel-wise, they fold,” Chipper Jones said. “Ninety-five percent of the other managers can’t bring it home.”
Jones, who played on the 1995 World Series as a rookie season, has struggled emotionally having to watch this stretch run as he recovers from a torn ACL, but he said: “I’m probably the proudest to be on this team than all of them.
“To be honest with you, no matter how bleak it’s looked in the last month for our playoff chances, I really never felt any urgency. We all felt like this was a team that’s been through too much to let it slip away.”
There’s no reason to think it will slip away now.
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