The idea that Bobby Cox has a chance to go out on top should be put to rest by now. He's got a better chance of winning the 100-meter dash at the Goodwill Games than this year's World Series, and it's through no fault of his own. The lineup he is being forced to run out there against the San Francisco Giants in the divisional series raises one and only one question: How in the world did he manage to get his team into the playoffs?
It's never wise to draw sweeping conclusions from small sample sizes, but where's the fun in temperance and sober analysis? If you were Charlie Manuel and you were watching the Giants and the Atlanta Braves, wouldn't it be hard for you to keep from plotting out your World Series roster and rotation right now? There simply doesn't seem to be a legitimate contender among the other three National League teams.
The Giants don't hit with any consistency unless you count double plays, and their defense always seems to be a hold-your-breath proposition. (The left side of the infield is manned by a pulling guard and a blocking fullback.) The Braves don't hit much at all, and their injury-ravaged infield is a defensive atrocity. (Cox rightly called Cody Ross' RBI single in Game 1 exactly what it was: an error on third baseman Omar Infante.) The Cincinnati Reds don't appear to have the starting pitching to make everyone's favorite spectacle -- Aroldis Chapman -- relevant.
Still, there's something to be said for these teams as they battle for the opportunity to lose to the Philadelphia Phillies. They're all either happy to be here, or somewhat surprised to be here. They all overachieved through the regular season and ground out important wins down the stretch. You can argue the merits of outlasting the San Diego Padres, and taking till Game 162 to do it, but no matter. Outside of Philadelphia, nobody in the National League half of the playoff bracket has any recent playoff success to draw from, so there's something endearing about guys who are making it up as they go along.
(The way it's viewed in the Bay Area, Tim Lincecum and Buster Posey are two little kids who threw their gloves over their handlebars Thursday afternoon and rode to the park to play some ball. Apparently, there's something about those two that brings out the doting grandparent that lurks within.)
Without a playoff team since 2003, Giants fans are going out of their way to create storylines that might purge the Bonds era that represents the club's last bout with success. This is a team assembled from bit parts; it's a team without stars; it's a team whose collective ego has been subsumed by the quest for the greater good.
It's not far from the truth. The Phillies reloaded with Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt. The Giants shopped off the rack, getting Pat Burrell, Ross and a couple of relievers (Javier Lopez and Ramon Ramirez) who have proved to be stout mortar between the bricks. The Braves picked up Derrek Lee, whose defensive abilities are put to the test every time Brooks Conrad fields the ball well enough to get off a throw.
The Giants seem to be embracing the sideshow act, as evidenced by a bizarre pregame performance by Robin Williams before Game 1. A few minutes before the first pitch, Williams stood behind home plate with a microphone and tried to carny-bark the crowd into a frenzy. It was difficult to understand what he was saying, but the volume generated gave the impression that the Giants and Braves were going to line up and hit each other. Whatever; the crowd seemed to like it.
Robin Williams as Michael Buffer might have seemed better suited for a wrestling match or a self-help seminar, but maybe it was the perfectly strange way to inaugurate a perfectly strange series.
And the weirdness is apparently contagious. Someone asked Lincecum if he could have imagined pitching better than his two-hit, 14-strikeout shutout Thursday night. Lincecum gave the question its proper level of respect before saying, "I don't know. It's hard to judge what 'better' would be."
Cox knows exactly what "better" would be. Better would be a healthy Chipper Jones and a healthy Martin Prado and the hitter formerly known as Troy Glaus. Instead, he gets to pray for a run here and there and, starting about the seventh inning, wobble out to make pitching changes every batter or so. He's got to figure there's an answer in there somewhere.
As Cox made his way to the postgame interview room after the 1-0 loss to Lincecum -- the trek took him across the field, through the Giants' dugout, up the tunnel and down a walkway lined with Giants fans -- he pulled his cap off every four or five steps to run his hand through his hair. Nobody does helpless exasperation like Bobby Cox. He wobbled his way into the room, grew prickly with the first line of questioning -- why would you walk Pablo Sandoval? -- and eventually tottered back out rubbing his head and wearing the look that should adorn his eventual bust in Cooperstown.
This time, it's a look that says he doesn't know what to make of any of it.
It's not you, Bobby. Trust us on this one.