San Francisco Giants edge Atlanta Braves, 3-2, for two-games-to-one lead in series

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2010; 11:19 PM

ATLANTA - It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, when the bouncing baby boy was born on Jan. 16, 1980, for the baseball-loving Conrads, Jerry and Gail, of Spring Valley, Calif., to name the boy "Brooks," an homage to one of the great defensive players in baseball history, the Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson.

By shortly before 8 o'clock Sunday evening, as Brooks Conrad was wishing the ground near second base at Turner Field would open up and swallow him whole, his name seemed like the cruelest of ironies. Conrad is no Brooks Robinson, as anyone who witnessed the Atlanta Braves' gruesome 3-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants in Game 3 of the National League Division Series will attest.

Perhaps Buckner Conrad was already taken.

Conrad, the bench-player-turned-starting-second-baseman on the Braves' injury-depleted roster, made three ghastly, costly errors in the loss - none more so than the sharp grounder off the bat of Giants catcher Buster Posey that went through his legs, with two outs in the top of the ninth inning, allowing the winning run to score and ensuring Conrad a measure of baseball infamy.

"I'm embarrassed," said Conrad, pale and blank-faced in the Braves' near-silent clubhouse. "I feel like I let those guys down. It's tough."

It was the cruel turning point to a soul-crushing loss for the Braves, who were one strike away from completing their own improbable comeback. Instead, the loss put them in a two-games-to-one hole to the pitching-rich Giants, with Game 4 on Monday night.

The Braves will throw veteran right-hander Derek Lowe on three days' rest in Game 4, while the Giants - who were prepared to start ace Tim Lincecum on three days' rest had they lost - will instead go with rookie left-hander Madison Bumgarner.

Handcuffed for most of the night by Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez, the Braves took a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the eighth - igniting a sell-out, tomahawk-chopping crowd of 53,284 - when Eric Hinske hooked a two-run, pinch-hit home run around the right field foul pole off Giants reliever Sergio Romo. Romo had been summoned by Giants Manager Bruce Bochy in relief of Sanchez after the Braves announced Troy Glaus as a pinch hitter, and Braves Manager Bobby Cox pulled Glaus back in favor of Hinske.

But the Braves' bullpen - and Conrad's leaky glove - handed the lead right back. Without veteran closer Billy Wagner, who was deactivated before the game because of a strained muscle in his side, Cox mixed and matched in the ninth, using four relievers to try to piece together the three outs. And he still couldn't do it.

"We're playing it by ear the whole way," Cox said of his ninth-inning options.

Pinch hitter Travis Ishikawa drew a one-out walk off flamethrowing rookie Craig Kimbrel, and Freddy Sanchez lifted a soft single to center with two outs. Cox went to left-hander Mike Dunn to face Aubrey Huff, and Huff lined a single to right, bringing home the tying run.

The air went out of the stadium, but the Braves were still in a tie game. Up came Posey, who hit a scorching grounder at Conrad. But Conrad's view of the ball may have been blocked temporarily by the second base umpire, and when he went down to field it, he didn't get down far enough and the ball shot through his legs into right-center field, as Sanchez came around and scored the go-ahead run.

"I was trying to keep it front of me," said Conrad. "It just seemed to go right through me."

When the inning ended, Conrad began jogging in, but slowed to a walk as he got halfway to the Braves' dugout, descending the steps and going over to a solitary spot in the corner. Teammates came by to whisper encouragement, but Conrad could barely acknowledge them.

"We're behind him," Braves starter Tim Hudson said. "We love him. We love him more now than we ever have."

The Braves have other things to worry about, namely an offense that - Hinske's homer aside - is abysmal. They have managed to score just one earned run in 23 innings against Giants starters, and overall in the series they have drawn just four walks while striking out 37 times.

"We're not the best team in baseball, okay?" Cox said defensively. "But we can compete against anybody."

Conrad had committed an error in each of the Braves' last four regular season games, plus one in the series opener Thursday night. By the second inning Sunday, after he bobbled a potential double-play grounder in the first and dropped a pop-up in shallow right field in the second, he was up to three errors in the series, and seven in his last seven games.

"You hurt for him," outfielder Matt Diaz said.

For a while this summer, Conrad was an inspiring story for the Braves - a career minor leaguer summoned to Atlanta amid all the injuries, and a versatile player with a knack for dramatic hits, including a pair of pinch-hit grand slams.

But now, facing elimination, the Braves have to decide whether they can afford to put Conrad back out there on Monday night.

"I'll have to sleep on it," Cox said.

They say in baseball you can't hide anyone out there - the ball will always find them. But it doesn't always find them in such a cold-hearted, evil manner. That awful fate, for whatever reason, was reserved solely for poor Brooks Conrad.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company