By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 12:22 AM
ATLANTA - It was always difficult, in this National League Division Series, to discern exactly where the San Francisco Giants' pitching brilliance ended and the Atlanta Braves' offensive ineptitude began. The Giants' starting pitchers fell into two categories - current aces and future ones - and the Braves' position players fell into two others: a handful of dangerous hitters, and a bunch of truck drivers.
But four aces is a hand that pretty much always wins in baseball (truck drivers, on the other hand, rarely do) and so it was that the Giants rallied for a hard-fought 3-2 victory over the Braves in Game 4 on Monday night - ending an epic series that featured four one-run games and countless wild plot twists - and celebrated the clinching at a stunned-silent Turner Field.
"Pandemonium," closer Brian Wilson, who survived a harrowing ninth inning for the save, said in the Giants' champagne-soaked clubhouse. "It's getting kind of crazy in here, and I kind of like it."
They aren't a flawless team, these Giants. The bottom half of their lineup is full of outs. Their defense has some holes. But good heavens, can they ever pitch.
The Giants' four starting pitchers in the series - including rookie lefty Madison Bumgarner, who delivered six strong innings Monday night - compiled a tidy 0.93 ERA, while striking out 36 Braves batters and allowing only five walks.
And so, we say hello to a pitching lover's dream matchup in the NLCS: the Giants versus the Philadelphia Phillies. It will be San Francisco's Tim Lincecum against Philadelphia's Roy Halladay in Game 1 on Saturday night - last year's Cy Young Award winner versus this year's presumed winner.
"We know our strength is our pitching," rookie catcher Buster Posey said. "The rest of us, we just try to grind out at-bats and push some runs across. We've heard a lot of talk about how good the Phillies' pitching is, and we have the guys to match up with them."
And we also say goodbye - forever - to Braves Manager Bobby Cox, whose 30-year managing career came to an end. Cox was beckoned out of the Braves' dugout moments after the final out. He doffed his cap a few times, drawing thunderous applause from the crowd of 44,532 - and from the Giants, who paused their celebration to pay respect. Inside, he broke down in tears while addressing his players, and did so again during a brief, emotional news conference.
"They've come a long way, this team," Cox said haltingly. "They played their hearts out, and I'll miss them."
Cox, a future Hall-of-Famer, nonetheless made a fatal mistake in the pivotal seventh inning, as the Braves tried desperately to hang on to a one-run lead, allowing himself to be talked out of a hook by starting pitcher Derek Lowe with one out and the tying and go-ahead runs on base.
The next batter, Pat Burrell, drew a walk to load the bases. Cox belatedly made his pitching change, but the inning unraveled from there, with a run-scoring grounder to short by Juan Uribe and, two batters later, a sharp single to left by Cody Ross off Braves lefty Jonny Venters. That brought home the go-ahead run.
The Giants still had to secure nine outs for the victory, and they would not all come easily. Called upon in the ninth, Wilson issued back-to-back walks with one out, before striking out Omar Infante and coaxing a grounder to third by Melky Cabrera to end it.
The Braves entered October with a motto: 11 For 6. Meaning it would take 11 wins in the postseason to secure a World Series championship for Cox, uniform No. 6. Ultimately, the Braves fell 10 wins short, but the fact the Braves even won one postseason game, or got themselves into the playoffs in the first place, may make this Cox's finest managing job.
And the Braves nearly pulled off this upset. Every game hung on one or two pitches, or one or two plays. The series wasn't always pretty - the teams combined for 10 errors - but it was always riveting. It included a two-hit shutout (by Lincecum), a career-ending injury (to Braves veteran closer Billy Wagner), one memorable train-wreck of a defensive performance (by Braves second baseman Brooks Conrad) and five lead changes in the seventh inning or later.
"This series had everything," Giants Manager Bruce Bochy said. "Just the intensity and excitement of the series. There was never an easy moment for Bobby or myself, because these games could have gone either way. We were fortunate to come out on top. We know it."
Before Game 4, Cox, wearing aviator shades, sat in his customary spot at the end of the Braves' bench - surely realizing it could be the last time - and watched batting practice, in between welcoming a parade of well-wishers looking for a handshake or a quote.
Cox made one last trip to the mound in the ninth, pulling his lefty for a righty and trying desperately to keep the Braves' deficit at one run, and a handful of fans behind the dugout snapped pictures as he jogged back from the mound.
Perhaps it was fitting that Cox bowed out to the Giants, a team that evokes some of Cox's own Braves teams from the 1990s. He knows more about this game than just about anyone, but what Bobby Cox knows most of all is this: Great pitching wins.