On the final day of the regular season in potentially the final game of manager Bobby Cox’s career, the Braves went almost by script. They kept us guessing. They teased. They kept hearts pounding like bongo drums.
“Dramastics,” Matt Diaz cracked with a malaprop.
“We’re big on dramastics, as George W. would say,” he said.
The Braves had a magic number of two on Friday to clinch a wild card berth. The number was still two on Sunday, only it didn’t seem nearly as magical.
They lost two games to Philadelphia by a combined score of 18-5. In the series finale, they fielded a lineup that included only two carryovers from opening day. They surprisingly took an 8-2 lead over the Phillies Sunday. More surprisingly, they almost blew it.
Dramastics. Bobby Cox is 69. That doesn’t take into account that he probably has aged 10 years in the last six months.
But it was worth waiting for. In game No. 162, the Braves clinched the National League wild card berth. They hung on to defeat the Phillies 8-7 at Turner Field and then hung around a few hours to watch San Diego fall to San Francisco, 3-0.
Several hundred fans who had hung around to watch the Padres and Giants on the center field screen while chanting and doing the tomahawk chop, erupted. So did the clubhouse. Beer and champagne was sprayed in every corner and on everything that moved.
Cox was in the middle of it. He smiled while watching his players. He hugged players and coaches and team officials. He laughed when admitting that while watching the Padres’ game on TV: “I was yelling at the umpire on every pitch.”
And then this: “[It would’ve been] a 3,000-mile ejection.”
Drink it up. Cox is still here. The Braves are still here. After injuries and fizzles and 109 lineups and the losses of Chipper Jones and Martin Prado and too many others along the way to remember, Atlanta is
back in the postseason for the first time since 2005.
It’s the first time the Braves have made it as a wild card. But the celebration looked and smelled the same after those division-, pennant- and World Series-clinching moments.
The only thing that made it more special was that it came in Cox’s final season. His career will not end after 162 games.
After the clubhouse party subsided, the players coaxed their manager back onto the field. Some players hoisted Cox onto their shoulders. They carried him out in front of the dugout, as some 500 fans who hung around to chant and do the Tomahawk Chop while watching the Giants-Padres game on the center field screen went nuts.
Then the entire team of players encircled Cox and drenched him with champagne and beer. He never stunk so good.
“I’m so proud of this team — you have no idea,” he said.
We do, of course. Because Cox did the same thing after the 2,504th win of his career as he did after the first: He credited his players.
They couldn’t make it easy on themselves. An 8-2 lead after six innings turned into an 8-7. The Braves and comfort haven’t intersected all season, so why start now?
“This is essentially what we’ve done all year – wait around until it was late,” pitcher Tim Hudson said.
Cox, hoping for improved defense, shifted Brooks Conrad to second and Omar Infante to third. They both committed errors. But at least both contributed offensively. A team that had scored only 29 runs in the last 11 games (2.64) suddenly turned into the ’27 Yankees. They had a four-run fourth inning that included a game-tying RBI single by Conrad, a go-ahead RBI hit by Hudson and a two-run triple by Infante.
Hudson allowed only two hits in seven innings, but both were two-run homers, the second by Jayson Werth in the seventh to make it 8-4. In the eighth, Infante allowed Mike Sweeney’s two-out grounder to skip between his legs, opening the door to the Phillies’ three-run inning. Closer Billy Wagner allowed the two-run double by Ben Francisco that made it 8-7.
But Wagner closed it out in the ninth, battling his own thoughts of his career ending Sunday.
Quoting: “Don’t think that didn’t go through my mind: ‘Screw this up. Go home. Always be a goat.’”
Didn’t happen. Everybody was a hero Sunday. We just weren’t sure until the end.