ATLANTA – At the end of four one-run games that left them raw from the tips of their fingers to the ends of their psyches, a five-day slog that had promised satisfaction if it didn't slay them first, the San Francisco Giants wrested themselves from each other late Monday night to turn and honor the man before them.
He'd risen from across the field, steadying himself on a handrail, but only after the Giants had sated themselves behind his pitcher's mound.
They were going to the National League championship series.
He was going home.
Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox doffed his cap, the one he'd so enthusiastically slammed to the ground just Friday night. And the people who'd begged him to come, who'd chanted, ''Bah-BEE! Bah-BEE!'' when their season was done, the only manager they'd known for two damned decent decades of baseball, they cheered him and waved back.
[Photos: See more of Bobby Cox in his final game]
He turned on 69-year-old legs and, before him in a thin and scattered gray line, Giants players and coaches had set aside their victory. They grinned and clapped their hands and tipped their caps to him, delaying their date with the Philadelphia Phillies for a few seconds, and he smiled back and raised his thumb.
If not quite powerful or particularly comprehensive, the Giants had been industrious, creating runs from nowhere. And they'd pitched from the time the lights went on until they went out, their power arms punishing a thready Atlanta Braves lineup with strikes and velocity and, once in a while, illusion. They won Game 4 on Monday, 3-2.
Once a National League power and only now in rebirth, the Braves had hoped to send out Cox at the front of a parade. Only they'd lost too many parts for that. So, in a quiet clubhouse down the hall from a champagne party, Cox told them how proud he was and told them he'd remember the season as a wonderful one.
In a press conference a few minutes later, he stopped in mid-sentence and sat back away from the live microphone. He'd been thinking about this team, his last, about studs like Chipper Jones(notes) and Jason Heyward(notes) and Derek Lowe(notes), and good men like Brooks Conrad(notes), and a left-hander, Billy Wagner(notes), who would follow him into retirement.
But now the words wouldn't come, and he caught a sob in his throat. As he waited, he could hear the Giants had resumed their celebration.
''A grown man,'' he finally said, ''shouldn't do this.''
He'd been beaten at the end by runs that wouldn't come, but by Giants pitching, and in a series the likes of which few could recall – the Game 1 of Tim Lincecum(notes), the Game 2 of Rick Ankiel(notes) and Wagner, the Game 3 of Eric Hinske(notes) and then Conrad, and the Game 4 of Cody Ross(notes). It reeled from ragged to precise, from the glare of Giants general partner Bill Neukom's orange socks to the soberness of Wagner's farewell, from the dice roll of Troy Glaus(notes) at third to the ache of Chipper Jones in the dugout.
The Giants had won finally with Brian Wilson(notes) on the mound and two runners on base and the ball sailing over the infield, from third base to first, some 43,000 folks not sure whether to hope or not. The Giants had won by just enough again, by the width of a bat they'd claimed off waivers six weeks before, Ross driving in two of those runs from the eighth place in their order.
''I mean, Cody Ross, come on,'' Wilson said admiringly of the Florida Marlins cast-off who drove in the only run of Game 1 and sneak-attacked the Braves again in Game 4. ''The other team didn't want him? We'll take him. And then he'll be a hero for us.''
Wilson believed Ross to be symbolic of whom the Giants became, and Ross stood exhausted on the other side of the room, having run himself to pieces over five days.
''It's been emotional,'' he said. ''Very, very emotional. Every single pitch, every single at-bat, every single everything was incredible.''
Game 1 of the National League championship series is Saturday in Philadelphia. The Giants will have four days off, the Phillies five, and the Braves 169. The Giants play for their first NL pennant since 2002, the Phillies for their third in a row.
As that might suggest, the Phillies will be expected to make quick work of the NLCS, just as they did their division series, where they overwhelmed the Cincinnati Reds. It'll start, presumably, with Lincecum against Roy Halladay(notes), three Cy Young Awards among them.
''Would I pay to see it?'' Wilson asked. ''No. They're paying me to see it.''
The Giants arrive as a funny little band of misfits who pitch to every inch of every game, defend in places and search nightly for the slightest bit of offensive life. They've made do with that, riding a recast lineup, winning the West and surviving the Braves. The Phillies present a slightly different challenge, however, than the San Diego Padres and Braves, neither of which had the resources to turn even occasional mistakes by Giants' pitching into anything fatal.
In part because the likes of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain(notes) and Jonathan Sanchez(notes) were relentless in the strike zone and otherwise because the Braves in four games struck out 46 times and walked seven, the Giants are a few days later into October.
The Braves are not.
''It's been the end of the year for me for a long time,'' Jones said quietly. ''I'm thinking, 'What the hell am I going to do tomorrow?' ''
Wagner, who'd given an oblique muscle for three pitches in Game 2, will retire, his 422 saves fifth all-time.
''You can't help but know it's not always going to end the way you want to,'' he said. ''I thank God I had a chance to be a Brave.''
Not far from both, Cox was finishing a hug with Lowe, working the room, accepting handshakes, shuffling to the next guy. He'd been in 4,600-and-some rooms just like this, some winners and some losers and some just as lousy. But there'd always been another game out there somewhere, maybe tomorrow, maybe next spring.
And now there won't be.
He thanked the fans. And he'd thanked the Giants for remembering him, even saying of their manager, Bruce Bochy, ''If we couldn't win, I'm glad he did.''
Finally he thanked his ballclub, left raw like the Giants, just a few runs short.
''They played their hearts out,'' he said. ''And …''
He stopped, pulled the words together, and then finished.
''And I'll miss them.''