Commentary

Unlikely pair breathes life into Braves

Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth were among the last few standing, and they delivered

Updated: October 9, 2010, 9:20 AM ET
By Jorge Arangure Jr. | ESPN The Magazine

SAN FRANCISCO -- In the final moments of the most important game of the season, the contest that would most likely determine whether legendary manager Bobby Cox's career would still have a chance to extend past the first round of the playoffs, the Atlanta Braves' infield featured the third-string third baseman, the second-string second baseman and the team's seventh-best reliever.

And even if the Braves somehow managed to escape a precarious bases-loaded one-out situation against the San Francisco Giants and push the game into an 11th inning, they would only manage to send the dreaded bottom part of the lineup to bat, a unit that included a well-traveled former pitcher turned hitter who only was in the starting lineup because the two guys in front of him on the depth chart had not hit a lick.

To say that Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth -- both acquired by Atlanta in a deadline deal this year with the Kansas City Royals -- were last resorts would not be an exaggeration. Yet, in what was one of the most improbable postseason games in Cox's storied career, a 5-4 extra-innings win against the San Francisco Giants, the unlikely duo of Ankiel and Farnsworth saved Atlanta's season and left hope that the legendary manager's career could still have a storybook ending.

[+] EnlargeKyle Farnsworth
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireKyle Farnsworth became the unlikely winner in a game that added a little more life to Bobby Cox's managerial career.

After the final out was cast, a popup to shortstop Alex Gonzalez, and the Braves shook hands and patted each other on the back on the field, both Ankiel and Farnsworth were greeted with a standing ovation in the clubhouse -- because who could have predicted that either would play such an important role in such a pivotal game?

"What a fun win," said Ankiel, his hair covered with specks of shaving foam from a celebratory pie to the head.

A game of twists was provided its most intriguing turn in the bottom of the 11th with Braves closer Billy Wagner's oblique injury. In that inning, Atlanta had attempted to jump-start its offense by putting at third base Troy Glaus -- who had played just nine games at third in the past two seasons, and had fielded just nine chances in that time. The Braves were desperate for offense, as losing Friday would have put them in the unlikely spot of having to win three consecutive games to extend their season. Sure enough, the first play of the inning was a bunt from Edgar Renteria that trickled toward third base, which sent both Glaus and Wagner scurrying toward the ball. While trying to field the ball, Wagner felt a pain in his left side. Glaus stumbled and could not field it. Renteria was safe at first.

"It was a perfect bunt," Glaus said.

On the next play, Andres Torres sacrifice-bunted toward Wagner, who grabbed the ball and threw to first base but then fell to the ground in pain.

"After I made the pitch and went toward home plate I couldn't move," Wagner said. "Thanks goodness it was bunted right to me."

Immediately, the Atlanta trainers came on to the field. In the dugout, Farnsworth had gotten up from his seat to see what had happened. Five minutes before, he had been stretching just in case he was needed, but nobody thought that would happen unless the game went much further. But Wagner was unable to pitch, and Farnsworth was called upon. He began his outing by hitting Freddy Sanchez and walking Aubrey Huff to load the bases. Pitching coach Roger McDowell came to the mound to check on Farnsworth. In that team meeting at the mound, Glaus turned to Omar Infante, who had started the game at third but had moved to second base, and said, "If the ball is hit hard, I'm going to throw it to you to start a double play."

To even get to that situation a series of improbable events had to happen. First, Farnsworth -- often criticized for his inability to pitch in the clutch -- had to induce a double-play ground ball, an almost implausible occurrence since in his entire career Farnsworth had only induced 34 double plays in 837 innings pitched. To put that in perspective, that equals one double play for each 25 innings. Secondly, Glaus, whose most extensive time at third recently had come during a one-week stretch this year in the minors, had to field the ground ball and then make an adequate throw. Thirdly, Infante had to make the throw past a charging Huff.

Amazingly, on a 1-1 slider, Buster Posey hit a well-struck ball to Glaus.

"OK, then," Farnsworth thought to himself as Glaus threw to second instead of coming home for the sure out.

"Uh-oh," Farnsworth mumbled as Glaus' throw to Infante landed on the far side of second base.

"Yes!" Farnsworth yelled when the ball landed in first baseman Derrek Lee's glove, beating Posey by a step, completing the double play.

"A lot of players wouldn't have made that throw," Infante said. "But he had the courage to do it and you must admire that."

"To be perfectly honest," Glaus said, "it never crossed my mind to go home."

In the following inning, with one out, Ankiel, who only had a .651 OPS with the Braves, struck a long home run to right field against Giants reliever Ramon Ramirez, a blast that landed in McCovey Cove. With that moment, Ankiel's career had come full circle. It was 10 years ago, in Game 1 of the division series against the Braves, when as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, his pitching career had come undone. In that game, Ankiel had a fit of wildness, resulting in six walks and five wild pitches, from which he never recovered. It was that game in particular that had begun his transition to a position player.

"To be honest, I just wanted to get from the batter's box to the dugout to get back with my teammates," Ankiel said.

Yet Cox was not around to see any of it. In the second inning, Gonzalez, whose two-run double in the eighth would eventually tie the game at 4-4, had hit a grounder to Giants shortstop Juan Uribe, whose throw appeared to pull Huff off the bag at first base. After Gonzalez was ruled out, Cox sprang from the dugout and headed toward first-base umpire Paul Emmel, whose blown call on Posey's stolen base in Game 1 on Thursday led to the only run in the game. Cox argued with Emmel for a moment, but then headed toward plate umpire Paul Nauert, hoping that a meeting between the two umpires would reverse the out call.

In those fleeting seconds when he stood in between home and first, Cox seemed a sympathetic figure, a lonely man stuck in limbo, not sure where to go or how to get there. In that confusion came the realization that this game might bring the beginning of the end for the old manager. When it became obvious that Cox would not win the argument, he took off his cap and slammed it to the ground, which led Emmel to eject him. For Cox it was the 161st ejection of his career: 158 in the regular season and three in the postseason. One more and Cox will have a full season's worth of ejections on his résumé. He'll have at least two chances to earn that distinction.

But in his absence, Cox's team made him proud.

"You can never figure out baseball for sure," Cox said. "But I was telling our guys before the game, 'You know, win this one, the momentum swings the other way.'"

So despite missing their All-Star third baseman Chipper Jones, their All-Star second baseman Martin Prado, and now their closer Wagner, who proclaimed himself likely out for the remainder of the series with a strained oblique, the Braves improbably march on.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.