ATLANTA (AP) — The San Francisco Giants couldn’t wait to get to the champagne, to pop the cork on a celebration eight years in the making.
But first, they had to pay their respects to the guy in the other dugout.
Bobby Cox’s career ended when the Atlanta Braves lost to the Giants 3-2 in the deciding game of the NL division series Monday night, giving San Francisco its first playoff victory since a run to the World Series in 2002.
The chants of “Bobby! Bobby! Bobby!” from the crowd at Turner Field were to be expected for a retiring manager who’s sure to wind up in Cooperstown. The more touching gesture was provided by the Giants, who quit jumping around long enough to clap for Cox and tip their caps in his direction.
“He’s a legend in this sport,” second baseman Freddy Sanchez said. “He’s been a great mentor to so many people in the sport. We had to show our respect. First things first. Then we could go celebrate.”
They certainly had reason.
Twenty-one-year-old rookie Madison Bumgarner pitched six strong innings. Late-season pickup Cody Ross homered and drove in the go-ahead run with a two-out single in the seventh. Finally, the San Francisco bullpen closed out a series that was tight and tense to the very end.
The Braves coaxed two walks out of San Francisco closer Brian Wilson in the bottom of the ninth, but they couldn’t get the hit that might’ve extended Cox’s career for at least one more game. Omar Infante struck out on a checked swing, and Melky Cabrera hit a routine grounder to third.
Just like that, it was over.
The Giants were moving on to face two-time NL champion Philadelphia in the league championship series.
Cox was hanging up that familiar No. 6 uniform for the final time.
“It doesn’t feel like the last time I’m putting it on, but it certainly is,” he said, his voice cracking. “I won’t put it on again.”
Every game was decided by one run, but the Giants won three of them to take the best-of-five series and earn a shot at knocking off the mighty Phillies. Game 1 is Saturday at Philadelphia and features a marquee matchup of Cy Young winners: Tim Lincecum vs. Roy Halladay.
Lincecum beat the Braves with a two-hit, 14-strikeout shutout in Game 1. Halladay pitched a no-hitter against Cincinnati in his postseason debut, getting the Phillies started on a sweep of the Reds.
“They have unbelievable pitching,” Ross said. “It’s going to be pretty much like this series.”
In the next round, the Giants will be facing a much more potent lineup than anything the Braves could muster. They didn’t have the strongest lineup to begin with and came into the playoffs without two of the their best hitters, Chipper Jones and Martin Prado, both out with season-ending injuries.
Atlanta hit .175 as a team and scored only nine runs in the four games.
“Our pitching, I can’t say enough about,” Ross said. “We scored only a handful of runs and ended up winning the series in four games. It just goes to show how valuable they are.”
Bumgarner did his part, allowing only six hits and two runs. He wound up getting the win as the Giants scored twice in the top half of the seventh, again aided by some shaky Atlanta defense.
This time, it wasn’t Brooks Conrad — the guy who made three errors in Game 3 didn’t start. Instead, shortstop Alex Gonzalez made two errors, the second of them a high throw that just barely pulled Infante off the bag on an attempted force at second.
That miscue allowed Ross to get to the plate, and he came through with a single to left just out of Gonzalez’s reach to bring home the go-ahead run. Pat Burrell also attempted to score, but he was thrown out at the plate to end the inning. Not to worry. A 3-2 lead was good enough for the Giants bullpen.
Santiago Casilla worked 1 2-3 innings, Javier Lopez struck out Jason Heyward to end the eighth and Wilson earned his second save in as many nights.
“This series had everything,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “Just the intensity and excitement of the series, it had to be thrilling for the fans. There was never an easy moment for Bobby or myself, because these games could have gone either way.”
Atlanta starter Derek Lowe pitched no-hit ball into the sixth inning, and still it wasn’t enough. The Braves have yet to win at Turner Field with a series on the line, losing for the eighth straight time in that situation since the Ted opened to baseball in 1997.
Cox won’t get a chance to end that streak, calling it a career at age 69.
He heads for the rocking chair as the fourth-winningest manager in baseball history (2,504 regular-season victories) but one major shortcoming on a record that will surely be good enough for the Hall of Fame. In 16 trips to the playoffs — one with Toronto, 15 with the Braves — Cox’s teams captured only one World Series title, way back in 1995.
A Braves fan held up a sign pleading for the team to “Win It For Bobby,” but Ross and the Giants were in no mood for sentimentality.
They were ready to party.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” Lincecum said. “Guys tell you, but you don’t know until it happens. A lot of swearing, a lot of screaming, a lot of alcohol.”
Ross, who was acquired on waivers from Florida in late August, has already paid big dividends in October. With one out in the sixth, he struck for San Francisco’s first hit of the game — a liner that barely cleared the left-field wall. Then, after Brian McCann put the Braves back in front with a homer of his own, Ross came through with the go-ahead hit.
Lowe — rocking back and forth, muttering to himself and sweating profusely on an unseasonably warm night — did all he could on three days’ rest.
It wasn’t enough to extend Cox’s career.
“I’m proud of this team,” the now-retired manager said, his eyes watering. “They played their hearts out and I’ll miss them.”