Braves vs. Giants
National League Division Series, best of 5; Giants lead 2-1
Game 4: Giants, Madison Bumgarner vs. Braves, Derek Lowe at Atlanta, 7:37 p.m. Monday
Game 5: Wednesday at San Francisco, 8:07 p.m., if necessary
ATLANTA — Brooks Conrad stood near second base, all alone. He didn’t dare go near Braves manager Bobby Cox, standing on the mound making a pitching change. Finally, teammate Derrek Lee wandered over, giving Conrad a pat on the back.
Nothing helped. All Conrad could do was bend over in anguish.
“I wish I could just dig a hole,” he said, “and sleep in it.”
The Braves were within one out of taking control of the NL division series, but a 30-year-old journeyman infielder who wouldn’t have been playing if not for season-ending injuries to Chipper Jones and Martin Prado simply couldn’t catch the ball Sunday.
Conrad made three errors, the last of them on a two-out grounder in the ninth inning that gave the San Francisco Giants a 3-2 victory over Atlanta.
“It was completely embarrassing,” said Conrad, who has made eight errors in the last seven games going back to the regular season. “Once again, I feel like I let everyone down.”
He bobbled a grounder in the first, but that one didn’t hurt. He dropped a popup the next inning, allowing an unearned run to score. Finally, Buster Posey’s hard grounder skidded under Conrad’s glove, bringing home the run that capped San Francisco’s two-run ninth.
“I thought he would make the play,” Posey said. “I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.”
Brian Wilson shut down the Braves in the ninth to give the Giants a 2-1 lead in a tense best-of-five series in which all three games have been decided by one run.
San Francisco can close it out tonight. For Conrad, the memories of this one will linger for a lifetime. He tied a postseason record for errors in a game and became the fourth second baseman to make three, according to STATS LLC.
Those blunders might just speed up the retirement of Cox, whose long managing career ends as soon as Atlanta’s season is done.
“We had this one won,” Cox said. “We can win games and we can compete against anybody. But we can’t afford to make mistakes.”
Atlanta did nothing against Jonathan Sanchez, managing only two hits in 7 1-3 innings and trailing 1-0. But when pinch-hitter Eric Hinske lined a two-run homer off Sergio Romo in the eighth, the Braves suddenly had the lead.
Unfortunately for Atlanta, there was no Billy Wagner to close it out. He was removed from the roster before the game with a pulled muscle on his left side.
Rookie reliever Craig Kimbrel was within one out of a save before the Giants rallied. Aubrey Huff tied it with a run-scoring single off Mike Dunn. Then, Posey hit a grounder to just the right man.
“I’ve never experienced that range of emotions on a baseball field,” Atlanta outfielder Matt Diaz said.
The wild finish overshadowed Sanchez’s brilliant performance — he didn’t allow a hit until the sixth — and Hinske’s dramatic homer, which carried the Braves to within one strike of having a chance to close out the series at Turner Field.
The gaffes by Conrad cost them.
He was one of the last guys to make the Braves roster out of spring training and spent his first full year in the majors. Conrad was primarily a backup, though he did provide one of the season’s most dramatic moments with a pinch-hit grand slam that capped a seven-run ninth inning and a 10-9 victory over Cincinnati in May.
Then Jones hurt his knee, and an injury finished off Prado for the season, too. Down the stretch, the Braves were forced to go with Conrad at third base.
His defense was so shaky that Cox swapped him with Omar Infante before the crucial last game of the regular season with the Braves trying to wrap up the wild card, moving Conrad to second because he was having trouble making accurate throws from third.
His arm wasn’t the problem in Game 3.
Freddy Sanchez provided a key hit for the Giants, smacking a two-strike single to center to keep them alive in the ninth. Kimbrel was replaced by Dunn, another rookie, who threw a slider that Huff yanked into right field to bring home Travis Ishikawa.
Peter Moylan took over for Dunn and got what he’s known for: a ground ball from Posey. It went right through Conrad.
Sanchez and Atlanta starter Tim Hudson had quite a pitchers’ duel. The lone run off Hudson came after Mike Fontenot led off the second with a triple to right. Jason Heyward raced back to the wall and had the ball in his glove, but it popped out when he slammed hard into the padding.
Cody Ross followed with a popup into short right. Heyward might have made an attempt on it, but he got a late break and wasn’t charging that hard, perhaps still a bit groggy from his collision with the wall. But Conrad, looking back into the setting sun and running hard, got there in time to make the catch — only to have the ball pop out of his glove.
Fontenot, who wasn’t tagging, raced in with the first run while Conrad fumbled for the ball.
Sanchez was nearly as dominant as Tim Lincecum in a two-hit, 14-strikeout performance that carried San Francisco to a 1-0 victory in the series opener. The left-hander baffled the Braves with a slider, striking out 14 and holding them hitless until Hudson, of all people, singled to right in the sixth.
Nothing came of that.
Then, after Alex Gonzalez started the eighth with a single and Conrad — in yet another blunder — popped up a bunt, Hinske connected.
It was in the eighth when Giants manager Bruce Bochy appeared to make another ill-fated call to a bullpen that coughed up a 4-1 lead in Game 2 at San Francisco. The Braves rallied to tie that one, then won it 5-4 on Rick Ankiel’s 11th-inning homer into McCovey Cove.
This time, it was Hinske who delivered. He fought back from an 0-2 count before hitting a line drive into the right-field corner that sent the standing-room crowd of 53,284 into a frenzy.
The next inning, there was nothing but stunned silence except for those who mustered the energy to boo Conrad.
Cox is known for defending his players more than perhaps any other manager, but even he might be forced to make a change at second base. The only other middle infielder on the roster is little-used rookie Diory Hernandez.
“I’ll have to sleep on it,” was all Cox would say when asked if Conrad would stay in the lineup.
Bochy made no apologies for the way his team pulled it out.
“To come back like that after a two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth, I mean, that can take the wind out of your sails,” he said. “And these guys came right back and found a way to get it done. That is a great win.”