2010 NLDS Game 3– The 2010 Atlanta Braves were actually a collection of three teams.
There was the team that began the season 18-20, falling into last place, 6.5 games out of first by mid-May.
Then came the squad that went 38-20 thru July 22, building up a lead of 7 full games in the division, a remarkable 13.5 game swing in little over two months.
And lastly, we have the team that took the field in game three of the National League divisional series playoffs against the San Francisco Giants. It was a team that consisted of just two of the eight everyday players remaining from the opening day lineup. Seven positions from opening day had a new name on the lineup card for what ultimately became one of the most heartbreaking games in Atlanta Braves annals.
At catcher All-Star game MVP Brian McCann was still there, and was beginning to take claim to a new roll as the unquestioned leader and face of the Braves.
The other player remaining in the lineup? Just that rookie Jason Heyward, who himself had battled through injury throughout the second half, hurting his production, but not enough to prevent him from finishing second in rookie of the year voting and being the best offensive player on the team.
First basemen Troy Glaus, he off the ridiculous hot streak through May and early June that carried the Braves out of the slump? Age, injury, and ineffectiveness had taken him out of the lineup. Insert Derek Lee, another injured first basemen, seemingly a shell of the player he once was, but still, an uprgade over what Glaus had become at the plate, and a massive upgrade in the field.
At shortstop, the club had seen enough of the enigmatic Yunel Escobar and traded the super talented, but temperamental youngster to Toronto for veteran Alex Gonzalez. Gonzalez provided a more stabling presence in the infield, and perhaps more sound overall defense (though he made some crucial errors down the stretch), though without the potential flair that Escobar was supposed to offer.
Future hall of famer, and Mr. Brave Chipper Jones may have started slowly, but his bat began coming around in the second half of the year. Then, making one of the finest defensive plays he’s made in years, Jones season ended with an ACL tear. Initially all-star second basemen Martin Prado had been penciled in to play third, but after his season ending injury Omar Infante took over. All Infante did was, after making the All-Star team has a reserve, go on to contend for the National League batting title.
In left field, Melky Cabrera proved to be one of the worst off-season acquisitions in recent memory for the Braves, and when the playoffs rolled around, it was Matt Diaz making the start in the most important Braves game in half a decade.
In center, Nate McClouth got off to a start that was so bad nobody would have believed it without actually seeing it first hand. While McClouth seemed to recover after a stint in the minors and at least be serviceable, it wasn’t McClouth starting in center field on this night, instead it was late season pick-up, and ironically enough game two hero, Rick Ankiel.
And now we get to second base, yes, second base. It was manned at first by Prado, en route to selection to an all-star game. However, following the Chipper Jones injury, Prado was moved to third base, and Omar Infante took his spot at second. However, with just merely five games left in the season, Prado was lost for the year. Infante was moved from second to third, and in came Brooks Conrad at second. Conrad had become a folk hero of sort for the Braves, delivering some clutch hits off the bench in some huge wins for the club over the course of the year. However, his clutch at bats off the bench over shadowed his biggest weakness, he was a huge liability in the field. There’s a reason he was 30 years old and a rookie in the big leagues at such an age.
The team entered the season think Jair Jurrjens would be their ace, after his outstanding 2009 season, marred by poor run support. Jurrjens however couldn’t stay healthy throughout the year, and wasn’t even on the post-season roster.
Yet, here the Braves were, at home, playing game three against the National League West division champion San Francisco Giants, with the series knotted at one apiece.
The fact that the Braves were in such a spot was a testament to what the team had displayed all year, a fighting, never say die, it’s never over spirit. After dropping the first game in a nail biting 1-0 pitchers duel, the Braves faced a must win in game two.
Trailing 3-0 in the 8th, with for all intents and purposes the season seemingly pretty much over, Atlanta did what it had done all year. It picked itself up off the deck and scored three runs, the big blow coming from Alex Gonzalez’s two run double.
Into extra innings the games went, and there, another in season pick-up, Ankiel, would pick up the slack, turning a 2-2 pitch with one out in the top of the 11th into a moon shot that landed in McCovey Cove, well beyond the right field wall for a one run lead the Braves would not surrender.
However, to get into the 11th, the Braves had to pitch their way out of a jam in the bottom of the 10th. And while they accomplished that feat, closer extraordinaire Billy Wagner had to make a difficult defensive play on a ball out in front of the mound on a throw to second base. On the throw, Wagner injured an abdominal muscle and would no longer be available for the Braves in the playoffs.
So, yes, as the Braves entered game three of this division series, tied, with a chance to go up 2-1, wit Cy Young candidate Tim Hudson pitching, they were doing so with 6 of 8 regulars different from opening day, and their ace pitcher and their closer also both being someone different from who was expected from the opening pitch.
So as Braves fans, expecting a serious run to the World Series was just too much to expect, right? Well, no. Not with this team, not with the fight they’d shown all year. Not with the comeback against the Reds earlier in the year, not with they way they fought and clawed with an undermanned squad to get themselves into the playoffs, not with this being Bobby Cox’s last year and the team doing everything it could to send him out the best way they knew possible. No, it wasn’t too much to expect.
These are the dream seasons and magical story lines that seem to happen all the time, well, all the time in cities besides Atlanta.
Remember when I mentioned that Brooks Conrad had become the teams second baseman? He reminded us all with an error in the first inning.
In the second inning, he just reaffirmed it. Conrad, attempting to take a pop fly away from first basemen Derek Lee, misplayed the ball, allowing the Giants first run to score, giving the Giants a 1-0 lead.
It was a 1-0 lead that held all the way into the 8th inning. Then the Braves did what the Braves have done, again.
Alex Gonzalez singled to lead off the inning. Up next, Conrad, with a chance to atone for the damage done earlier in providing the Giants their only run. Asked to bunt, he couldn’t do it. He popped the bunt up, wasting an out.
One out, man still on first. Up to the plate stepped Eric Hinske. Sergio Romo’s 0-1 pitch didn’t go where he wanted it, and it landed exactly where he did not want it. The left handed Hinske turned on it, at once the crowd at Turner Field rose, fans in their living rooms all across Georgia rose to their feet. And then they all screamed and yelled and cheered in ways they’d not screamed and yelled and cheered in years.
2-1, the Braves led. The stadium shook. It was good.
The Braves entered the 9th however without Wagner, who was going to close things out. Rookie Craig Kimbrel, the closer of the future, found out the future was now. At a time like this, you ask that the guys behind the pitcher help the youngster out.
And then here came that Conrad guy again. The Giants picked themselves up off the deck, rallying with two outs, with the Braves one out away from having two chances to close the Giants out, one of which would come at home, to score the tying run and put two more on base.
They tied the game at two, but there were still two outs, the Braves would be batting again, all was good. Then Giants catcher Buster Posey did the very best thing he could do. He hit the ball right at Brooks Conrad. Through the wicket it went, in came the go-ahead run, and with it went the Braves playoff hopes.
Three errors in one game. Most players can’t try to do that. Brooks Conrad did it in the biggest game of his life. Conrad was the target of critics all over the country, but particularly so in the state of Georgia.
Forgotten was that without Conrad’s contributions during the year, the Braves wouldn’t even be in the playoffs. Forgotten was that Conrad was the teams THIRD choice at second base, only playing because guys like Martin Prado and Chipper Jones weren’t available. Forgotten was the decision by Bobby Cox to take out the hard throwing strike out machine Kimbrel for fellow rookie Mike Dunn, who’d offered very little value during the regular season. Forgotten was that the Braves team, really, wasn’t at this point good enough to be a playoff team, let alone one actually contending to win a series.
None of that really mattered. What was remembered was that the Braves lost 3-2 in a game where two of the Giants runs came directly off of errors by Conrad. What was remembered was that a routine ground ball was hit to a major league baseball player, and he couldn’t make the play, again.
Even the “Nutty Nutcracker” at the Fox Theater took the liberty to get their shot in at Conrad.
Who is to say the Braves would have gone on to win that game, and if they had, who is to say they would have finished off the series? Who’s to say they advance past the Phillies and capture that World Series? We can’t know, but we never will, and it’s because Brooks Conrad couldn’t field one lousy ground ball.
The Giants, as we know, went on to win the World Series. Their toughest playoff series en route to doing so? You got it, the one where Brooks Conrad gave them game three. The Braves may not have gone on to equal the Giants run in the playoffs. But with the pitching the Braves had, and the way the team kept fighting back, one would have liked a chance.
Alas, as happens so often in Atlanta, that chance slipped between our legs, in excruciating fashion, again.