When Atlanta Braves reliever Billy Wagner stiffly lunged off the mound to field a groundball hit by Andres Torres and immediately grabbed his side upon throwing to first base, I had a terrible feeling this would be the last time one of the greatest closers in history would grace a major league mound. The 39-year old, who was crouched on the ground in agony, was joined by the medical staff and catcher Brian McCann, and then was gingerly ushered into the dugout and towards the clubhouse.

The injury, which I estimate to be a strained oblique, did not appear to be something Wagner can shrug off. Given his desire to retire at season’s end, this was most likely the end to his Hall of Fame-worthy career, and, considering the enviable situation the San Francisco Giants found themselves in, it appeared the Braves would be sent to elimination’s brink.

Edgar Renteria was on second base, having reached on a bunt to begin the tenth inning–a bunt Wagner appeared to originally hurt himself going after. The Giants were in prime position to take a 2-0 series lead heading back to Atlanta, needing just a single to do so, but how extra innings were forced makes what transpired quite remarkable and fitting.

The Giants grabbed an early lead backed by Pat “The Bat” Burrell, who lived up to his one-dimensional nickname by slugging a first inning three-run blast off Tommy Hanson and over the left-field wall. Then they added to the advantage, scoring a run in the second on an rbi-single by pitcher Matt Cain.

That lead held for five innings, as Cain didn’t let the Braves take full advantage of a collection of hits by their many veteran hitters. But, eventually, the 26-year old right-hander couldn’t halt every attempted rally. Braves first baseman Derek Lee singled to begin the sixth and reached second as Burrell bobbled the ball in left. Lee’s wherewithal to take the extra base paid immediate dividends. McCann delivered as he has done all year, lining a single into center to plate Lee and cut the margin to three.

Reliever Mike Dunn, one of the Braves many impressive and aggressive bullpen arms with a closer’s mentality, came out for the sixth after pitching a scoreless fifth, retired the dangerous Aubrey Huff, and then gave way to Peter Moylan. Moylan, their team leader in appearances, worked around a double by Burrell to escape the threat.

No noise was made by either team in the seventh, but some was in the eighth. The Giants were the victim of this noise, as the Braves battled back against their usually dominant closer Brian Wilson, a bearded, quirky, and mohawk-boasting character. He entered after Sergio Romo, who was sporting a similarly scruffy black beard, allowed singles to Lee and McCann, and his job now was to collect just his second six-out save of the season.

Atlanta, down three, needed a big inning, and their call was answered. The pudgy Melky Cabrera hit a grounder to an equally out of shape Pablo Sandoval and reached as Sandoval’s throw took Huff off the bag at first, loading the bases with none out. Brooks Conrad and Alex Gonzalez made sure this opportunity wouldn’t go to waste, as Conrad’s groundout helped the Braves inch closer while Gonzalez’s ensuing drive into the left-center gap sent the basepath’s final two runners to the plate, knotting the affair at four.

It was still tied after nine, sending the game to an ever-exciting tenth. The Giants were in a prime position to score in the bottom of the frame, with the bases juiced and one out. Catcher Buster Posey, the hitter San Francisco wanted up in this situation, is usually very clutch but he couldn’t convert. A flyball lifted into the outfield would have a great chance at scoring the winning run, yet he only managed to weakly hit a slider from Kyle Farnsworth down the third-base line. Troy Glaus, who had assumed the position to begin the inning, handled his first attempt as well as possible. Instead of going home, he immediately made up his mind to try for the traditional double-play. Gonzalez fielded his throw at second base then spun and fired to first. Lee snagged the throw before Posey’s arrival and pumped his fist. Double-play: just what the Braves needed to stay alive.

A wasted chance turned into, well, what Rick Ankiel proceeded to do. Ankiel, who pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals a decade ago, lost all sense of command, and transformed into an outfielder, strode to the plate with one out against Ramon Ramirez. Acquired from the Kansas City Royals mid-season along with Farnsworth, he has struggled in Atlanta, hitting for a low batting average and little power. But, he managed to make Braves fans everywhere forget about his woes with one swing.

And my oh my what a swing it was. As powerful as he could produce, creating the sound every hitter dreams of hearing. Ramirez’s fifth pitch on a 2-2 count was thrown right down the pipe, in Ankiel’s wheelhouse. And Ankiel, who has been through so much during his tumultuous major league career, certainly didn’t miss it, crushing the offering deep into the night. After contact he thrust his right arm in the air. Seconds later the ball splashed into McCovey Cove. The ballpark fell silent. All that could be heard during the next few minutes was the announcers covering the blast on TBS, the cheers from the select few Braves fans amongst the record crowd of 44,046, and the jubilation inside the Braves dugout prior and especially during Ankiel’s arrival. Ankiel, like his teammates and those fans who made the long journey from Georgia, was all smiles. In the moments after being ambushed, he motioned to a coach that his heart was beating rapidly. He couldn’t believe what had just happened. Neither could the Giants.

San Francisco went quietly in the bottom of the inning, giving the Braves the victory heading home, where they were a major-league best 56-25 during the season. This may have been Wagner’s last game, but his Braves are far from done. The credit for that is due to Farnsworth and Ankiel; Farnsworth, who posted a 5.40 ERA in 23 regular season appearances, and Ankiel, who hit just .210 in 47 games with Atlanta. Ankiel, the 31 year old who, ten years ago, allowed seven runs in four playoff appearances with the Cardinals on five hits and a nightmarish and career-changing 11 walks, spanning the NLDS and NLCS. Ankiel, whose homer that sunk San Francisco “was the biggest home-run of my career … the pinnacle of my career,” washing away memories of his painful past.

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