ATLANTA — The San Francisco Giants celebrated their first playoff win in eight years, then paused to honor the man whose career they had just ended.
As Bobby Cox came out of the Braves dugout to tip his cap to the chanting crowd one last time Monday night, the Giants stopped what they were doing on the other side of the field.
They began clapping, too, and tipped their caps in Cox’s direction. The Atlanta manager waved back.
Then the Giants headed off to savor a 3-2 victory that sent them to the National League Championship Series for the first time since 2002. Twenty-one-year-old rookie Madison Bumgarner pitched six strong innings, late-season pickup Cody Ross homered and drove in the go-ahead run with a two-out single in the seventh, and the San Francisco bullpen closed it out.
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For Cox, there are no more games, only the reality of what he’s going to do with the rest of his life without a group of ballplayers to manage.
He can put away that familiar No. 6 uniform for good.
“It doesn’t feel like the last time I’m putting it on, but it certainly is,” Cox said, his voice cracking. “I won’t put it on again.”
The series was tight and tense to the very last out. Giants closer Brian Wilson walked two in the ninth, giving the Braves one more shot to extend Cox’s career. But Omar Infante struck out attempting to check his swing on a nasty slider, and Melky Cabrera grounded out to third.
“This series had everything,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “Just the intensity and excitement of the series, it had to be thrilling for the fans. There was never an easy moment for Bobby or myself, because these games could have gone either way.”
Indeed, every game was decided by one run, but the Giants won three of them to take the best-of-five series and earn a shot against the two-time defending NL champion Phillies. Game 1 is Saturday at Philadelphia and features a marquee matchup: Tim Lincecum vs. Roy Halladay.
After the final out, the crowd of 44,532 chanted “Bobby! Bobby! Bobby!” to lure the retiring skipper out of the dugout for a well-deserved curtain call.
“Thank You, Bobby Cox,” the giant video board said as “Georgia On My Mind” played throughout the stadium.
“He’s the best manager for me that’s ever managed the game,” said Ross, who was acquired from Florida on a waiver claim in late August and paid big dividends in October. “I got a chance to play against him for five years. I love coming in here seeing him. I want to congratulate the Braves on a fine season and him on a great career.”
Atlanta starter Derek Lowe pitched no-hit ball into the sixth inning, and still it wasn’t enough. The Braves have yet to win at Turner Field with a series on the line, losing for the eighth straight time in that situation since the Ted opened to baseball in 1997. Cox won’t get a chance to end that streak, deciding more than a year ago to call it a career at age 69.
He heads for the rocking chair as the fourth winningest manager in baseball history (2,504 regular-season victories) but one major shortcoming on a record that will surely be good enough to land him in Cooperstown. In 16 trips to the playoffs — one with Toronto, 15 with the Braves — Cox’s teams captured only one World Series title, way back in 1995.
A Braves fan held up a sign pleading for the team to “Win It For Bobby,” but Ross and the Giants were in no mood for sentimentality. Not even with the comfort of knowing that Game 5 would’ve been back in San Francisco, and Lincecum was all rested and ready to go after a two-hit, 14-strikeout shutout in Game 1.
Now, the Giants ace is lined up to face Halladay, who pitched a no-hitter last week in his postseason debut. The Phillies and Giants split six games this season.
“I can’t say enough about our pitching,” Ross said. “They keep us in it the whole time. We just need to score a few.”
The Braves couldn’t blame this one on Brooks Conrad. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez made a couple of errors — including a high throw in the decisive seventh that got Ross to the plate with two outs. He delivered a bases-loaded single to left, driving in the tiebreaking run.
Conrad didn’t start after making three errors in Game 3, which the Braves were one out from winning to take the lead in the series. The last of those let in the winning run of San Francisco’s 3-2 victory, a stunning turnaround that gave the upper hand back to the Giants.