The Atlanta Braves met the San Francisco Giants in the 2010 NLDS. The series was tied coming to Turner Field, Tim Lincecum having won Game 1 in a masterly display, the Braves having overridden a 4-0 deficit to win Game 2 on Rick Ankiel's 11th-inning home run. In Game 3, Eric Hinske hoisted a two-run eighth-inning homer off Sergio Romo to put the Braves ahead 2-1 on the night and within three outs of a 2-1 series lead.
Had the Braves won Game 3, the Giants would have faced elimination in Game 4 at Turner Field. Here's how the top of the ninth unfolded/unraveled:
Craig Kimbrel, then a 22-year-old rookie, was summoned. (Billy Wagner, the Braves' closer that season, had tweaked an oblique in Game 2.) Kimbrel retired Cody Ross on a fly ball. He walked Travis Ishikawa. He struck out Andres Torres. One out to go.
Freddy Sanchez singled. Men on first and second, two out. Bobby Cox pulled Kimbrel so the left-handed Mike Dunne could face the lefty swinger Aubrey Huff. (On the season, Huff had batted .287 with an OPS of .894 against righties; he'd hit .296 with an OPS of .884 against lefties. In sum, no real difference.)
Huff singled to right, scoring Ishikawa with the tying run. Cox then deployed righty Peter Moylan to face Buster Posey. Posey's grounder was hit hard but at second baseman Brooks Conrad. The ball skipped between Conrad's legs, his third error that awful night. Sanchez scored what would be the winning run. Of the Giants' three runs, two were unearned due to Conrad errors. (The first came after he dropped a pop-up.)
Just after it happened, I wrote that it was, on a gut-punch level, the most excruciating Braves loss I'd ever covered, and I was there the night that rat Jim Leyritz hit his home run. I rode downstairs in the elevator with then-GM Frank Wren, whom I can only describe as shattered. In the postgame media briefing, I asked Cox if he could put Conrad on the field for Game 4. "I don't know," he said.
As it happened, Cox didn't. Omar Infante moved from third base to second for Game 4. Chipper Jones and Martin Prado weren't available, having been lost to injury in August and September, respectively. Troy Glaus, who'd played two innings at third base that year and who had a bad knee, got the Game 4 start there.
Glaus was brought here as a Wren reclamation project and was made a first baseman; he was the National League's player of the month for May, when he drove in 28 runs and the Braves began to build what would become a seven-game lead over the Phillies. Glaus had 34 RBIs after May and barely played down the stretch. The Braves would finish six games behind Philly, making the playoffs as a wild card when they won on the season's final day and watched the Giants beat the Padres and remove the need for a three-way play-in.
Had the Giants lost Game 3, they'd have brought back Lincecum for Game 4. Not facing elimination, they turned to the 21-year-old rookie Madison Bumgarner, who'd gone 7-6 with a 3.00 ERA since being promoted from Class AAA in June. Bumgarner was very good that night but left after six innings with the Giants trailing 2-1. Brian McCann drove in both Braves runs with a sac fly and a homer.
Derek Lowe, who'd been the Braves' best pitcher in September, had started on three days' rest after losing Game 1 to Lincecum 1-0. He'd yielded only one hit -- Ross' sixth-inning homer -- entering the seventh. Sanchez grounded out to open the inning. Huff walked. Sanchez reached on an infield single to third. (Remember, Glaus was stationed there.) Posey walked. Bases loaded, one out.
Enter, again, Moylan. Juan Uribe rapped a grounder to short -- for the second night running, Moylan induced a ground ball that should have yielded an out -- that might have been a double play. Alex Gonzalez's throw to Infante was high. (I've seen a picture that suggests Infante was able to keep his foot on the second-base bag, but umpire Ed Hickox ruled he hadn't.) The game was tied.
Jonny Venters replaced Moylan and struck out Aaron Rowand. Ross -- acquired by the Giants in August on a waiver claim -- singled to left to bring home what would be the winning run. Closer Brian Wilson walked two Braves in the ninth, but Infante struck out and Melky Cabrera grounded to third to end the series. After a brief celebration, the Giants turned to the Braves' dugout to applaud Cox, who'd managed his last game.
For the Giants, that was the start of an every-other-year streak that makes you question whether postseason baseball really is a crap shoot. Counting two wild-card games, they've won 11 consecutive playoff rounds. That ties them with the Yankees of 1998 through 2001, with one difference. Those Yankees faced four elimination games -- all against Billy Beane's Oakland A's -- over11 rounds. The Giants have faced nine. The past three have been won or saved by Bumgarner. In those three games, he has worked 23 innings without being touched for an earned run.
The constants from the Giants' three-World-Series-titles-in-even-numbered-years to Wednesday's wild-card roster are Posey, Romo, Santiago Casilla and Javier Lopez -- and Bumgarner. That's one great catcher, three reliable relievers and the best October pitcher since Bob Gibson. Career postseason ERA for Bumgarner: 1.94.
(And we shouldn't forget Bruce Bochy and his matchless staff -- pitching coach Dave Righetti, hitting coach Hensley Meulens. They're great, too.)
The Bumgarner legend began to grow at Turner Field six Octobers ago when he, as a rookie, was the winning pitcher in a closeout game. But if the Braves had won Game 3 -- had Cox let Kimbrel face Huff, say, or inserted Diory Hernandez as a defensive replacement for Conrad -- MadBum's first playoff victory wouldn't have come here, and maybe the Giants' mad run wouldn't have gotten started. As the football coach Jerry Claiborne used to say: That's the old 'iffin game.