Bobby Cox bids farewell after the San Francisco Giants defeated his Atlanta Braves to move on to the NLCS.


The unexpected tend to come up big during the playoffs, which has certainly been the case in the gripping series between the San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves.

It was Rick Ankiel on Atlanta’s side in Game 2, and tonight it was the Giants’ turn to have a hero, as outfielder Cody Ross did all he could to propel his team to a series-winning victory.

With the way Derek Lowe was pitching for Atlanta on three days’ rest, it not only seemed the Giants’ bats would be silent throughout, but it appeared Brian McCann’s sacrifice fly that scored Andres Torres in the third would be enough support.

Lowe spun his sinkerball masterfully, as he struck out five Giants through four innings, relying heavily on that pitch and then mowed them down in the fifth.

The lead was still intact. A bid for a no-hitter was alive and well. And if not for an error by Alex Gonzalez at shortstop, a perfect game would have been in the works.

Just then, with one out in the sixth, Ross put the no-no bid to bed, roping the first pitch he saw from Lowe just high enough to clear the wall in left. It was a sinkerball that didn’t sink, just sitting there on a tee for Ross, waiting to be pummeled.

Yet, Lowe, a 16-game winner this season, a 13-year veteran, and someone who has delivered in past postseasons, retired the final two hitters in the frame, then watched from the dugout as McCann eased his pain.

The Braves catcher, who is currently far and away their best hitter, took Ross’s approach and went after the first pitch he saw.

Leading off the inning, he didn’t waste any time, smashing a hanging curveball from the left arm of Giants starter Madison Bumgarner into the seats in right, putting Atlanta quickly ahead by one once more.

Now, the question remained: Could a clearly fatigued Lowe, who was pitching on three days rest, keep the advantage in the Braves favor?

It became apparent that the 37-year old right-hander could not. He retired Freddy Sanchez for the first out to begin the seventh, but four sinkers missed to Aubrey Huff, issuing him a free pass, and then Buster Posey tapped a grounder down the third base line and reached due to the sloth-like slowness of third baseman Troy Glaus.

The Giants had a threat brewing, and Braves manager Bobby Cox walked up the dugout steps and onto the field. Lowe’s night was seemingly over.

But he would have none of it. As Cox walked to the mound, Lowe was clearly distraught, cursing and shaking his head. When Cox reached the former World Series champion, there was more of the same, though some pleading was tossed in as well.

It was a hilarious reaction by Lowe, and the scene became more humorous when Cox heard what Lowe had to say, walked off the mound, and made his way back to the dugout.

Lowe talked his way into staying in, reminding me of a certain Boston Red Sox manager’s decision to stick with a certain starting pitcher in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS.

I am of course referring to Grady Little and Pedro Martinez. Little’s choice to trust Martinez backfired and ultimately fueled the end of Boston’s season at the hands of the New York Yankees.

Turner Field’s boisterous crowd cheered when Lowe remained on the hill, but they soon fell silent and grumbled. What happened next wasn’t of Pedro Martinez proportions, but it hurt the Braves nonetheless.

Pitchers always think they can get the next hitter out, no matter how many pitches they have thrown or how tired they are. It’s their competitive instinct. Lowe had lost all command of his sinker; it’s placement was poor and sharp movement was lacking.

As a result, four of five sinkers thrown to Pat “The Bat” Burrell missed, loading the bases and leading to Lowe yelping the clearest of F-word’s in disgust.

Cox came out from the dugout again. This time, Lowe didn’t even attempt to smooth talk the illustrious manager. He met him halfway and walked off to an ovation.

Peter Moylan, one of the many who dominated in the Braves bullpen during the regular season, entered and proceeded to get the groundball he was asked to get.

But, a night after Brooks Conrad committed three heart-breaking errors, Gonzalez committed his second gaffe, throwing high to second baseman Omar Infante, who couldn’t make the catch and stay on the bag at the same time. The bases were reloaded and the Giants had notched a 2-2 tie.

Aaron Rowand foolishly swung at a slider thrown low by Jonny Venters (the same exact pitch in the same exact location as the previous offering, which he took) striking out to give the Braves hope of escaping having only allowed the one run.

They could not, however, as Ross built upon his home run by stroking an RBI single into left.

Posey scored easily, but Matt Diaz scooped up the single, fired to McCann at home, and looked on as the catcher blocked the plate perfectly and tagged out Burrell.

The inning was over. A fourth run wasn’t attained, but an important third was. The Giants had the lead, and they wouldn’t lose it.

They did the night before, as the bullpen struggled late, and nearly did in Game 4 as closer Brian Wilson allowed two to reach with one out in the ninth, but the final two outs were recorded.

Infante struck out and pinch-hitter Melky Cabrera, the Braves last breath of hope, grounded out.

The celebration began in San Francisco. They are moving on to the National League Championship Series for first time since there last postseason appearance in 2003.

Hugs and high-fives were well spread as the team congratulated each other near the pitchers mound. Then, they stopped to appreciate Cox. He had popped out of the Braves dugout, tipped his cap to the Giants, and then waved emotionally to the standing crowd.

While the Braves fans applauded, San Francisco’s players and coaches did the same. It was an incredible moment; a classy moment; and a sad moment. Cox, who played all of one year in the major leagues, spanning 1968 and 1969 with the New York Yankees, then began his managerial career just two years later and spent the next four-plus decades in baseball as a general manager or manager.

He led the Braves to one World Series title and a whopping 14 straight division titles. Now, he’s hanging up his metal spikes, the shoes he wore to every game.

As he heads into retirement, the Giants move on. After applauding Cox on a brilliant career, they doused each other in champagne, basking in their first series win in the post-Barry Bonds Era.

Now, as San Francisco is forced to face H2O (Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt, the three Phillies aces) the Braves face life without Cox. Though the futures are daunting for both parties, I believe both will be bright.

(Photo: Zimbio)

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