Braves not ready to say goodbye to Cox
ATLANTA -- The Braves have given Bobby Cox another day, another stage from which to say goodbye.
From the depths of despair they've picked up the pieces and rebuilt their destiny.
They'll be jetting off to San Francisco some time Tuesday afternoon, having rewarded their legendary manager with his 15th trip to baseball's postseason wearing Braves colors.
"This never gets old, no matter how many times you do it," Cox gushed as he was hugged by his wife Pam. "And this one is very special."
It wasn't easy.
Even after reliever Billy Wagner sealed Sunday's crucial 8-7 conquest of Philadelphia, the Braves waited in their clubhouse while 2,100 miles away in San Francisco the Giants were eliminating stubborn San Diego.
Wagner, who's also calling it a career after this season, punched out the last three Phillies he faced for his 37th and final regular-season save.
When Greg Dobbs was frozen looking at a third strike, the Turner Field clock read 4:32 p.m. ET.
Nearly three hours later, at 7:10 p.m., the Giants raced off the field at AT&T Park with their 3-0 triumph and the National League West title.
That's when the true, much-deserved celebration finally began in the catacombs of Turner Field, eventually spilling out onto the field where several hundred fans waited.
By then, dozens of champagne corks had been popped, the players had pulled on the special "Wild Card" shirts and caps for the special moment. Within 10 minutes they were all soaked with the bubbly as their families and club executives joined in. How different baseball is these days. The two teams that will face each other in the best-of-five Division Series beginning Thursday celebrated simultaneously a continent apart. The Phillies play Cincinnati at Citizens Bank Park in the other NLDS.
At Turner Field on the crisp autumn afternoon, many in the sellout crowd of 52,613 remained for an on-field concert by the REO Speedwagon. Once that ended, many stayed to watch the Giants-Padres game unfold on the huge center-field TV screen, poised to take part in the celebration.
The Braves obviously will be underdogs in the series against the Giants, but to Cox and his players, getting to the postseason is what matters.
"We try hard," he said. "This team is the hardest-working, hardest-trying we've ever had here. It's easy to say they never quit; there was no quit in them in April. It's a great group of guys and they're fun to manage."
The Braves have been written off the last two weeks more times than the double-martini lunch. They're entering through the side door as the Wild Card, but at this point that really doesn't matter.
Saturday, when they fell to Philadelphia 7-0 for their fifth straight loss to the powerful East champion Phillies, there were signs of a collapse.
That would have been a terrible, if not unthinkable, way for Cox to end his Hall of Fame career.
Bobby Cox's final team quit on him?
It didn't happen.
The Braves' bats came to life with a firestorm of 14 hits against the Phillies, who may have helped Atlanta's cause a bit. Manager Charlie Manuel decided before the game he would use it as a tuneup for his pitching staff.
Cole Hamels, one of the three aces, started and pitched just two scoreless innings. Roy Oswalt, another of the Big Three, gave up a run in the third inning.
Ineffective reliever Danys Baez, who's had a dreadful season, allowed four runs in just two-thirds of an inning allowing the Braves to vault out to a 5-2 cushion.
In the fifth inning, Derrek Lee homered off Joe Blanton, who also allowed another run. In all, Manuel used eight pitchers.
On July 21, the Braves had a seven-game lead over Philadelphia. That dwindled, and on Sept. 9 the Phillies roared into first place and never looked back.
The Braves, on the other hand, had a poor September, winning just 13 of 27 games before Sunday. When they lost five of nine on their last road trip, including three to the Phillies, their playoff hopes dimmed as they fell out of the Wild Card lead.
"I'm just happy we got it done," said Wagner. "I pitched like I had nothing to lose. I like competing against the Phillies. They're such a great team, you have to stay focused. They make you pitch your best."
Wagner said it was so important for him and his teammates to "give Bobby another day, another tomorrow. We all love him to death. There's nothing greater than to have Bobby Cox in your corner. You can hear him above the crowd as loud as it was. Even a pitch off the plate, he's screaming it's a strike. That's what you need, something to go to bat for you no matter what the situation. It's fun to compete for him."
Ask Bobby where this trip to the postseason ranks and there's no hesitation. "Pretty far up there," he said. "We've come a long way. To get 91 wins is hard to believe. We had a lot of ups and downs, but the ball went our way quite a bit. We made it happen. It's been such a super year."
When the Braves had such a poor September, losing six of nine games to Pittsburgh and Washington, not to mention blowing a seven-game lead, I doubted they were playoff caliber.
"We had the big lead, but Philadelphia got really strong," said Cox. "We just couldn't hang on to it."
When the Braves lost third baseman Chipper Jones and second baseman Martin Prado to injuries, plus pitcher Jair Jurrjens, I doubted they could survive, especially with the Phillies storming to their fourth straight Eastern Division title.
"We lost a lot of main-core guys," Cox said during the celebration. "To come back under those circumstances is pretty darn good."
The Braves had 45 come-from-behind wins and led the Major Leagues with 25 final at-bat victories.
They seem to wait to the last minute for their most meaningful accomplishments, attested by a must-win on the last day of the season, then having to wait for the Giants.
"Quite honestly, that's the way it's been all season," said Cox.
And a huge reason why these Braves are so special to him.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.