Brief lead erased by error; Braves down, 2-1
Hinske's heroics for naught as Giants claim Game 3 win in ninth
ATLANTA -- Pushed to the brink of elimination and staring at the reality that they might have incurred one too many significant injuries, the Braves exited an emotional postseason loss more concerned about Brooks Conrad's psyche than the position his continued defensive nightmare has put them in.
What momentarily appeared to be another of the comeback victories that have become commonplace in Atlanta this year instead ended as a game the record books will almost certainly not allow Conrad to forget.
Less than 30 minutes after pinch-hitter Eric Hinske drilled a go-ahead two-run homer in the eighth inning of Game 3 of the National League Division Series at Turner Field Sunday, manager Bobby Cox left himself open to be second-guessed and the Braves watched the Giants celebrate a 3-2 victory courtesy of Conrad's third error of the night.
Though Conrad has committed eight errors in his past seven games, Cox wasn't ready to say whether he will still have the confidence to use the 30-year-old utility man again at second base during Monday's Game 4 -- a game that would be the last of his legendary managerial career if the Braves don't win.
Instead of claiming the pivotal Game 3 victory, the Braves literally watched it slip through Conrad's legs. Conrad's inability to cleanly field Buster Posey's decisive ninth-inning grounder only came after Cox mixed-and-matched a bullpen that might indeed miss closer Billy Wagner, hurt in Game 2, every bit as much as the lineup and defense have missed Chipper Jones and Martin Prado.
"The team that we have right now isn't the team that we started with," said Tim Hudson after limiting the Giants to an unearned run and four hits in seven strong innings. "But we feel like we have a team that can win. The guys that are on the club right now are guys we feel we can win a World Series with. Obviously we have to do things right and do the little things right to win -- or we're going to face some games like today."
As exhilarating as the 11-inning Game 2 victory might have been for Atlanta, this Game 3 loss was seemingly just as demoralizing. One out away from gaining the advantage in the best-of-five series, Cox opted to remove Craig Kimbrel in favor of fellow rookie Mike Dunn, who was unable to win the lefty-lefty matchup against Aubrey Huff.
"If [Huff] hits a double or a homer off Kimbrel, then you're asking why we didn't bring in the lefty," Cox said. "We don't have Wagner. We don't have [left-hander Eric O'Flaherty]."
After issuing a walk and allowing a Freddy Sanchez single, Kimbrel could only watch as Huff greeted Dunn with a game-tying single to right. This prompted the entry of ground-ball specialist Peter Moylan, who was helpless as Posey's grounder went through Conrad's legs.
"I got some barrel on it," Posey said. "I didn't really know exactly where it was. Then when I saw where it was -- I thought he was going to make the play. You don't ever wish that upon somebody. That's the way the game is sometimes."
Unfortunately for Conrad, the nightmare he has experienced since Prado's season-ending injury forced him into an everyday role might actually end in a cruel and abrupt manner within the next couple of days.
The Giants have put themselves in good position heading into Monday night's Game 4. Fifteen of the previous 16 teams that have grabbed a 2-1 lead in the NLDS advanced to the NL Championship Series. Coincidentally, the lone exception occurred in 2002, when they battled back to claim the last two victories in this best-of-five format against the Braves.
After Conrad committed his third error, a portion of the standing-room-only crowd booed as stadium's large video board showed a clip of the walk-off grand slam he had hit to cap a seven-run ninth inning against the Reds on May 20.
"That guy has done more for this club than anybody ever gives him credit for, and it pisses me off to hear the crowd boo, when throughout the whole year, if they just look back, he's one of the main reasons why we are here," Moylan said.
Heading into the eighth, the lone hit recorded by the Braves came courtesy of the sixth-inning single that Hudson delivered off Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez, who allowed just two hits and one run in 7 1/3 innings. He surrendered an eighth-inning leadoff single to Alex Gonzalez before Hinske greeted reliever Sergio Romo by wrapping his go-ahead homer around the right-field foul pole.
"It was one of the best feelings I've ever had on a baseball field being a part of that, and then one of the worst 30 minutes later," Braves outfielder Matt Diaz said. "When Hinske did that, it was like, 'Here we go again -- this is our team, this is what we've done all year.' Unfortunately we weren't able to do it again today."
Hudson limited the Giants to four hits and one unearned run over seven innings. The 35-year-old right-hander retired 14 of the final 16 batters that he faced and essentially cruised after escaping the jams created by Conrad's errors in the first two innings.
After being forced to throw an additional 15 pitches due to Conrad's inability to start a double play, Hudson left the bases loaded in the first.
Mike Fontenot began the fourth inning by racing into third with a triple after Jason Heyward slammed hard into the right-center-field wall and let the ball fall out of his glove. Cody Ross followed with his decisive pop fly that Conrad momentarily seemed to have while racing with his back to the infield.
Heyward certainly hasn't helped the Braves while striking out seven times and going hitless in his first 12 at-bats of the NLDS. But much of the blame is being put on the shoulders of Conrad, and Hudson is among those who feel nothing but compassion for the gritty infielder who was in the midst of a storybook season before these past 10 days have unfolded.
"He's a guy we're obviously rallying around," Hudson said. "He's a sparkplug. It's one of those things where your feathers get raised when somebody says something bad about it. We hate that he's in the spotlight for something like this, because he doesn't deserve it."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.