Cox, Braves relish return to postseason
Atlanta wins Wild Card, plays at San Francisco on Thursday
ATLANTA -- Stubborn to the bitter end like their beloved manager, the Braves spent the past six months refusing to react well to the prosperity that they earned. But with a sense of habitual resiliency, they made the final day of this regular season one to remember.
After Billy Wagner squandered a once-comfortable lead and then preserved an 8-7 win over the Phillies on Sunday afternoon at Turner Field, the Braves spent the next two-plus hours anticipating a celebration that erupted once they watched the Giants complete a 3-0 win over the Padres in San Francisco.
"I've been around for each of the previous celebrations, and I don't think I've ever seen one as spontaneous as this one," Braves CEO Terry McGuirk said while standing in front of approximately 1,000 Atlanta fans who waited at Turner Field to celebrate their club's first postseason berth since 2005.
Atlanta's win, combined with the Padres loss, allowed the Braves to clinch the National League's Wild Card entry. They will now prepare to open the Division Series on Thursday at 9:37 p.m. ET on TBS against the Giants at San Francisco's AT&T Park.
On this weekend when his career was celebrated by the Atlanta-record 158,048 fans that attended this three-game series, Cox found his first Wild Card entry to be just as satisfying as the 14 division titles he'd celebrated with the Braves.
"They all feel the same," Cox said. "Just exhilarating. I'm happy for the guys and the coaching staff that worked so hard."
After dousing each other with champagne in the clubhouse, a group of players went on the field and lifted Cox on their shoulders as the fans chanted, "Bobby, Bobby, Bobby."
"Somebody said the fans wanted Bobby up in the air, so I made sure we got him up there," said backup catcher David Ross, who embodies the attitude of this club that made Cox's final season such a memorable one.
"This team is the hardest-working and hardest-trying club we've ever had here," Cox said. "There's no quit in them. It's a great group of guys and they're fun to manage. There's aren't any problems whatsoever."
There didn't seem to be any problems when the Braves entered the season's final weekend with a two-game lead in the Wild Card race. But after losing two straight to the Phillies, they found themselves all square with the Padres entering the final day and facing the possibility that this would be the last day in the storied careers of both Cox and Wagner, who both plan to retire at the end of this season.
"We're drama queens, I guess you can call us," Braves infielder Brooks Conrad said as he attempted to squint through champagne-soaked eyes. "We save the best for last, I guess."
Conrad's costly throwing errors on Friday and Saturday played a part in the fact that the Braves were forced to clinch on the last day of the regular season. But the resilient infielder, who spent the previous nine years primarily in the Minors, delivered a pair of RBI singles that allowed Atlanta to build a lead that proved just big enough to celebrate Sunday.
"We always answer the bell," McCann said. "Every time our backs have been against the wall, we've come through and got a win. A lot of guys stepped up today. I'm so proud of everybody in here. Today, we did everything we needed to do."
Wagner made things interesting after he entered the eighth with runners at the corners and two outs. The veteran closer allowed a Wilson Valdez RBI single and Ben Francisco two-run double before preserving the consequential one-run advantage with four consecutive strikeouts.
"We knew we had to win this game," Wagner said. "We battled and bowed our neck a little bit and pulled out one."
When the Braves lost nine consecutive games at the end of April, they were left for dead. By the time Memorial Day concluded, they began a three-month run at the top of the NL East standings. A trying September became more frustrating when the Cox's club lost Martin Prado, their most valuable player and the man who had taken over third base when Chipper Jones suffered his season-ending knee injury on Aug. 10.
"Each [celebration] is unique," said Jones, with the tone of a proud father figure. "Each one has its own sidebar topic that means something. Obviously we all know what this one means. It's Bobby's last and our first one in five or six years. It makes it extra special. Whenever you have a bunch of 20-year-old kids on the club, it makes it cool to watch them celebrate."
Hours after crashing into the right-field wall to deny Shane Victorino an extra-base hit and then further aiding the cause with an RBI triple during Roy Oswalt's one-inning postseason tuneup, Jason Heyward wore the smile one would expect from a 21-year-old rookie experiencing his first champagne celebration.
"This is very rewarding," Heyward said. "It's tough to make it this far. But we know that we've got more work to do and a lot more fun to have. I'm just looking forward to it."
As soon as Tim Hudson delivered the first pitch in this season finale, it was obvious he was determined this wouldn't be his final start. The veteran hurler proved perfect in four of his seven innings and the only hits he surrendered during this span came courtesy of two-run homers hit by John Mayberry, who pinch hit for Cole Hamels in the third inning, and Jayson Werth, whose blast cut into Atlanta's six-run seventh-inning lead.
Hudson also aided his cause with a go-ahead, two-out single that extended the four-run fourth long enough for Omar Infante to hit a two-run triple off Danys Baez.
With the middle-inning eruption that was aided by Derrek Lee's fifth-inning leadoff homer, the Braves had a comfortable lead. But staying true to form, they managed to make things interesting before having the chance to celebrate a long, hard-fought journey to the postseason.
"It's kind of our nature, better late than never," Hudson said. "It's been a good year for us. It's been a lot of fun. We have a lot of great guys in this clubhouse and we busted our tail all year."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.