There was Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, who is associated with the “It gets through Buckner!” error in the 1986 World Series. Then there was Chuck Knoblauch, whose mind got so rattled he was hesitant fielding everything. Now, unfortunately, Brooks Conrad joins the group as a Buckner/Knoblauch hybrid, having a day in the field that would fuel a sleepless Sunday night if the Atlanta Braves couldn’t bounce back in third game of their evenly matched series with the San Francisco Giants.
His nightmarish night began in the opening inning, as he bobbled a grounder hit by Freddy Sanchez that put runners on first and second with nobody out. For his sake, the Giants didn’t score, as Brian McCann magically gunned down Andres Torres on a questionable attempted steal of third to quell the threat. In the second inning, after a drive by Mike Fontenot bounced out of Jason Heyward’s glove at the wall in right for a triple, a second miscue by Conrad hurt his team considerably. Cody Ross popped up the first pitch thrown to him by Braves right-handed veteran Tim Hudson, Conrad hovered under the ball, then lost it and watched it fall to the ground. Fontenot scampered home and many of Turner Field’s 53,284 booed.
Later in the game he called off first baseman Derek Lee on a pop-up and made the play. It was Lee’s ball, but it seemed Conrad wanted to make the catch just to show he could. At least that was my interpretation.
Worse yet for Conrad, San Francisco starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez made that 1-0 lead stick. The team’s third best pitcher dominated just as Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain did. Swings and misses were prevalent by the Braves bats. Everything was clicking for the 27-year old: his fastball was overpowering and his off-speed pitches had late and deceptive movement, making him tremendously hard to hit.
Atlanta didn’t get a hit until Hudson, of all hitters, sawed his bat in two and flared a single to right-field in the sixth. The Braves didn’t score in that frame, nor did they push across a tying run in the seventh. But their fortunes changed in the eighth.
Shortstop Alex Gonzalez singled to begin the inning, but then Conrad brought out the boo-birds once more. Not only was he struggling in the field, having made two errors, he couldn’t make up for his gaffes by producing at the plate. His job was to move Gonzalez into scoring position with a bunt, but his attempt was popped up and found its way into the glove of a charging Fontenot.
Sanchez was pulled as Troy Glaus was announced as the pinch-hitter for Rick Ankiel, Game 2′s hero. Glaus wouldn’t get a shot to build upon Ankiel’s heroics against Sergio Romo, as Eric Hinske came up to the plate instead after the Braves saw who was coming in from the Giants bullpen. Glaus would have certainly like to have a chance to change Atlanta’s fortune against the incoming arm, but Hinske managed to deliver in his place.
Sanchez wasn’t all too happy about being taken out, with the same intense expression he carried with him during his dominant outing that featured 11 strikeouts. That expression turned into a dejected face consumed in shock, as Eric Hinske, who reached the World Series the previous three seasons with three different teams, crushed a hanging slider by Romo just fair down the right-field line and into the seats. Turner Field erupted. The Braves dugout went ballistic, especially when Hinske arrived. And Sanchez just sat there in the Giants dugout, motionless. A remarkable outing ruined. Worse yet, San Francisco was now three outs away from going down 2-1 in the series.
If Billy Wagner was to take the mound in the top of the ninth, ‘slim’ would have been the word to describe the Giants hopes of coming back after such a deflating bottom of the eighth. But Wagner is done for the postseason after straining his oblique in Friday’s loss, thus sadly ending his Hall of Fame career. This means Bobby Cox’s closer would be by committee. And, unfortunately, it was indeed a committee.
Craig Kimbrel, a 22-year old who had a whopping 40 strikeouts in 20 2/3 regular season innings upon being called up and who Wagner believed could successfully succeed him, got the call from Cox to try to collect the save. The hard-throwing right-hander induced Ross to pop-up to Conrad, the play that I described earlier in which the second baseman called off Lee. Now, two outs were all the Braves needed to take the series advantage.
Pinch-hitter Travis Ishikawa managed to work a walk out of Kimbrel, as the young hurler didn’t feast on Ishikawa’s weakness, refusing to throw his fastball upstairs to entice the 26-year old. He did recover to retire Andres Torres, getting the Giants center-fielder to whiff on a rare changeup, but Freddy Sanchez singled to end his outing. Mike Dunn, another hard thrower, trotted in from the bullpen.
Based on stuff, Cox had reason to believe Kimbrel would come through. He didn’t, but Cox put the same philosophy to work in ushering Dunn in. The new reliever’s job? The same as Kimbrel’s: to overpower and get the outs necessary to fuel a victory. He couldn’t either, but his short outing was far more painful than Kimbrel’s.
Two pitches were all he threw. The second, a flat slider to Aubrey Huff, was ripped into right field to score the tying run. As Ishikawa scored and Cox slowly walked out to the mound, a smile had to crack on Romo’s face and a deep sigh of relief had to be breathed. His reaction may not have been that drastic at this point in time, as the game was only tied, but he could soon reaction that way, as Conrad’s struggles continued with a play he will live over and over in his mind, cringing every time.
Ahead in the count 2-1 against Peter Moylan, rookie catcher Buster Posey hit a hard grounder Conrad’s way. He lifted his glove, expected the ball to bounce, instead of obeying the Cardinal Rule of keeping his mitt on the ground. The ball did bounce, but not high enough to cushion in Conrad’s keeping. It bounded into right-center field, scoring Sanchez from third with the go-ahead run. Right through Conrad’s wickets, a heartbreaking sight leaving the embattled infielder in disbelief.
Some fans flung their arms up in the air in disgust, booing Conrad. Others stood unable to say anything. No matter who was booing or silent, the packed stadium was in complete shock having witnessed Conrad’s third error of the game and fourth of the series.
The Giants went on to win, as closer Brian Wilson closed the door in the bottom of the ninth. Even though I wanted San Francisco to take the series advantage, it was a tough way to win. I hated to see what happened to Conrad, and, going back to by childhood as a diehard Braves fan, was sad to see Atlanta lose in such a devastating fashion.
Afterwords, he said, “I wish I could just dig a hole and go sleep in there.” He feels terrible. He feels like he let his team down, just as Knoblauch did time and time again and as Buckner did in ’86. But, he has support. No Brave teammate envies what he’s dealing with right now, as Chipper Jones, longtime member of the team and my childhood idol, summed up in the post-game interviews compiled by the Atlanta Journal Constitution‘s Dave O’Brien:
“There’s no a guy in here that wouldn’t take Brooks Conrad in their fox hole any day. We love the guy to death. He works his tail off. He deserves better than what happened to him today, but it’s part of the game. It’s happened to all of us. It’s happened to the best players. It’s just unfortunate because we want so bad for him to be successful.”
After witnessing Conrad’s struggles, Cox was noncommittal about him starting Game 4 at second base. Hopefully he will give him the chance to redeem himself, and hopefully Conrad can take full advantage of that chance. But for now, he will have to live with his errors running over and over again through his mind. Especially the last, one Billy Buckner knows all too well.