Error, lack of hitting land Braves in Wild Card tie
Atlanta could be in for tiebreaker depending on Sunday's results
ATLANTA -- When the Padres fell two games behind in the National League Wild Card race Thursday night, the Braves felt pretty good about their postseason hopes. But that was before Brooks Conrad's defense and a slumbering offense provided the reminder that Martin Prado is no longer around.
The Braves can only hope that Prado's absence doesn't prove debilitating once again against the Phillies on Sunday, when they conclude the regular season with the possibility that it will be the last game that Bobby Cox ever manages.
"We've got to suck it up and win a game," Cox said after watching Conrad's latest costly throwing error allow the Phillies to erase a scoreless battle and construct the four-run seventh inning that led them to a 7-0 win over the Braves on Saturday afternoon at Turner Field.
While the Braves have weakened their once-strong postseason hopes by losing the first two games of this series, the Padres have resuscitated their hopes with consecutive wins over the Giants. Suddenly the Braves and Padres find themselves heading into their respective regular-season finales tied at the top of the NL Wild Card standings.
"We've made it tough on ourselves, but we've got to come back tomorrow," said Conrad, who has committed costly throwing errors in both of the first two games of this series.
If the Braves win while sending Tim Hudson to the mound Sunday, they guarantee that they'll at least participate in a play-in game to determine the NL's Wild Card entrant. That game would be played at Turner Field on Monday or Tuesday, depending on whether the Giants and Padres are tied at the top of the NL West standings after Sunday's games conclude.
A win combined with a Padres loss would lock down the Wild Card entry and provide the Braves their first postseason berth since 2005.
But a loss combined with a Padres victory would abruptly end this season for a Braves club that might have finally backed itself into an inescapable corner.
"It's good to say [the last game] means something," Braves rookie right fielder Jason Heyward said. "It's good to say we're going out here tomorrow to play for a chance for the playoffs."
Resiliency has proven to be this team's greatest asset. But now without both Prado and Chipper Jones, they find themselves susceptible to the likes of Vance Worley, who allowed just one hit in five scoreless innings while making just his second career start Saturday.
"Sometimes you just have to give pitchers credit," said Heyward, who has hit .149 (7-for-48) in his past 13 games. "Right now we just haven't hit as well as we'd like to at this point in time. Those things are going to happen during the season. It's just unfortunate that it's just happening at the wrong time."
With the assistance of a couple nice grabs made by shortstop Alex Gonzalez, Tommy Hanson managed to hold the Phillies scoreless through five scoreless innings that included just 89 pitches. But having watched his club bat just .224 over the previous 16 games, Cox opted to pinch-hit for the 24-year-old right-hander with two outs and Nate McLouth on second base in the fifth inning.
After Eric Hinske ended Worley's outing with a harmless pop fly, Jonny Venters pitched around Shane Victorino's sixth-inning leadoff double. But the rookie left-hander, who was making his 78th appearance of the season, was unable to keep the game scoreless after issuing Jimmy Rollins a seventh-inning leadoff walk.
Placido Polanco followed Rollins' walk with a sharp grounder that Conrad fielded before making an off-balance throw that sailed into center field. The 30-year-old rookie infielder then watched helplessly as Chase Utley, Raul Ibanez and Victorino damaged Venters with RBI singles.
"You just have to stay as positive as you can," Conrad said. "I feel terrible again today. But we still control our own destiny. We just have to come out and win tomorrow."
Conrad inherited the third-base position Monday night when Prado was lost for the season with a hip pointer and torn left oblique muscle. He delivered key hits that led to wins over the Marlins on Tuesday and Wednesday. But this series has been a nightmare for Conrad, whose two-out throwing error in Friday's series opener allowed the Phillies to construct a five-run sixth inning that gave them a lead they would secure.
"We've made two plays on back-to-back nights that have cost us ... the floodgates have opened," Cox said.
Prado's absence has also been evidenced while the Braves have struggled offensively while not yet facing any of the members of Philadelphia's Big Three -- Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. Their only hit off Worley came courtesy of a Derrek Lee two-out double that was followed by Conrad's inning-ending groundout.
Tuning up for the playoffs, Hamels will pitch the first two innings of Sunday's series finale and Oswalt will get one inning of relief. Somewhere along the line, the Braves' offense must show some form of life. If not, their playoff hopes may soon be dead.
"If we don't win, then we didn't do our job," Heyward said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.