There’s no cheering in the press box, but I have to admit: When the ball went through Brooks Conrad’s legs, I gasped. Not because I care who wins or loses — I get paid not to care who wins or loses — but because, even though these are highly paid professional athletes, they’re people, too. And on a human level, this was as excruciating a loss as I’ve ever seen.
And yes, I covered the Jim Leyritz game in the 1996 World Series.
A third-string infielder pressed into service because Chipper Jones and Martin Prado went down committed three errors. The second cost a run. The third cost the game and maybe the Division Series. And this is how some of those in the massive crowd at Turner Field reacted to Conrad’s wretched night:
When the clip of his walk-off grand slam against Cincinnati was played on the message board before the bottom of the ninth, some people had the gall to boo.
What, the Braves’ manager was asked, do you say to a player on such a night? “Not much,” Bobby Cox said. “Everybody’s talked to him. We’ve encouraged him as much as we can.”
Would Conrad start Monday’s Game 4? Cox: “I’ll have to sleep on it.”
This assumes Cox gets any sleep, which he won’t. Because that was the other aspect of this careening night. The great manager who has taken his last team into one last October had outflanked his opposite number in what seemed the game’s key moment. Alas, the great manager outflanked himself.
The Braves trailed 1-0 for a couple of hours. Their first hit came in the sixth inning and was struck by pitcher Tim Hudson, which made no sense but also perfect sense. Their second hit came when Alex Gonzalez led off the eighth with a single to right. Then Conrad popped up a bunt — he was booed then, too — and Giants manager Bruce Bochy decided to pull Jonathan Sanchez, his overpowering lefty starter.
Cox had announced the right-handed hitting Troy Glaus as a pinch-hitter for Rick Ankiel, whose homer had won the epic Game 2. Bochy summoned righty Sergio Romo, against whom the Braves had rallied Friday night. Cox took down Glaus for the lefty-swinging Eric Hinske …
Who hit a home run.
And now the giddy Braves had only to get three outs to throw a hammerlock on the series. On came the rookie Craig Kimbrel, whom the injured closer Billy Wagner had anointed his heir apparent before the game, and Kimbrel got one out, then walked a man, then got another out. He dealt two strikes to Freddy Sanchez, who then singled up the middle.
Kimbrel didn’t throw another pitch. Cox wanted the rookie lefty Mike Dunn to face the left-handed hitting Aubrey Huff even though Huff had hit .296 against lefties this season, as opposed to .287 against righties.
“I was hoping Dunn could locate,” Cox said. “He got the first fastball over and he hung a breaking pitch.”
Then: “If [Huff] hits a double or a homer off Kimbrel, then you’re asking why we didn’t bring in the lefty.”
Huff’s single tied the game and took the air out of the stadium. Buster Posey’s grounder to second kicked everybody in the gut. Conrad let the ball play him, as they say in the trade, and wound up giving it the Bill Buckner treatment.
With the lead, Cox was asked, why not replace Conrad on defense? “We were down to one [non-catcher and non-pitcher] on the bench with [Diory] Hernandez. And we didn’t want to use [catcher] David Ross.”
Then: ‘We had this one won … We’re not the best team in baseball, OK? But we can win games and we can compete against anybody. But we can’t afford to make mistakes.”
Conrad made three. (Four if you count the botched bunt.) Cox made two. And a team of diminishing means that needed to win the regular season’s final game to qualify for the playoffs stands one loss from elimination.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Hudson said. “But we’ll come out tomorrow and put it behind us.”
Maybe they will. But honesty compels me to say I don’t know how.