Braves hope for winning send-off for Cox

Braves manager Bobby Cox , above, waves to Delta staffers as he boards a charter jet for the road trip to New York. The airline gave him a big send-off, putting his number on the plane. Cox, at left, is in his last season as manager.
Braves manager Bobby Cox , above, waves to Delta staffers as he boards a charter jet for the road trip to New York. The airline gave him a big send-off, putting his number on the plane. Cox, at left, is in his last season as manager.
Posted: September 19, 2010

NEW YORK - The past, present, and future have all converged for the Atlanta Braves as they make the final regular-season road trip of Bobby Cox's 29-year managerial career.

Cox, of course, has been the face of the franchise since 1991, when he took the moribund Braves from a last-place finish the previous season to the first of five World Series appearances in nine years and an unmatched 14 straight division titles.

The Braves, despite a September tailspin that has seen them fall from three games up to three games behind the Phillies in the National League East, still have a chance to give Cox a special send-off that would be even better than the Delta Airlines tribute he received before Thursday's team charter flight from Atlanta to New York.

"I got the captain's treatment," Cox said. "We pulled in on the team bus, and I saw this airplane with this red [No.] 6 [Cox's number], and I said, 'Holy crap, I've been had here.' It was neat. They gave us platinum status, which means we can upgrade any time."

That's fitting for a man who did such a tremendous job upgrading the Braves. Cox has received gifts from opposing teams at almost every road stop this season, and the Phillies have something planned for the Braves' arrival at Citizens Bank Park on Monday.

What Cox, 69, would like more than anything is to end the Phillies' run of three straight division titles, which looked like a real possibility at the start of September, before the Braves lost nine of 14 games.

That untimely slide prompted a players-only team meeting at Citi Field on Friday before the Braves started their three-game series against the New York Mets. The meeting was called by Chipper Jones, whose season was ended last month by a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

Jones is the last remaining player from the Braves' long-running success story, and he's trying to be a calming influence at crunch time for a team whose best remaining healthy player is 21-year-old rookie Jason Heyward.

"We can beat anybody, and we've proven that to ourselves all year," Jones said. "We've got enough of a block of time left between now and the end of the regular season to get hot. Hopefully, we can get a couple wins on the road under our belt, which is something that hasn't been the norm here all season."

The Braves did exactly that by winning Friday and Saturday at Citi Field.

"It's a good way to start a really tough road trip," Cox said.

Especially encouraging for Atlanta were the seven strong innings turned in by staff ace Tim Hudson, who had struggled in his first two September starts.

As a member of 11 of Atlanta's division winners, Jones knows that things can become a little different in September.

"Yeah, it's crunch time," he said. "The game is not played any differently because you're in September, but some players and some teams, it's hard to play in September with both hands wrapped around your neck. It's hard to throw a pitch when you're squeezing it real tight, and it's hard to hit when you're squeezing the sawdust out of the bat."

Heyward has shown no signs of succumbing to the pressure of a playoff race. His three-run home run Friday night against the Mets left the ballpark at the speed of light and triggered a much-needed victory.

"It's still baseball," Heyward said when asked about the pressure. "You have to have fun and go out there and focus on getting the job done. This is fun intensity. It's fun pressure. This is what the game is all about."

Thanks to Heyward and a core of other players under the age of 29 - Martin Prado, Brian McCann, and Omar Infante - the future looks good for the Braves regardless of what happens the final two weeks of this season.

For Cox and Billy Wagner, on the other hand, this is one last chance to get to the postseason and possibly win a World Series. Cox, despite having the fourth most managerial wins in baseball history, has won only one world championship. Wagner, 39, has never won a World Series and also plans to retire after this season.

They need the future to be now, and they're hoping the young Braves can react to the pressure of a pennant race the same way the Phillies have the last three Septembers.

"You can't tell young kids what this series in Philadelphia is going to be like," said Wagner, whose save total reached 35 Saturday when he struck out the side in order in the bottom of the ninth. "There are going to be a lot of things going on that you've never seen before as far as just home-field presence. You will see a veteran team that is under control even when they're behind. The Phillies are a very confident team. They've always been great players, and now their confidence is unbelievable."

As a showdown series in Philadelphia looms, the Braves' perception of the Phillies is identical to how the Phillies and everybody else used to view the Braves.

"This is the team we're going to have to go through if we're going to win this league," Braves president and former general manager John Schuerholz said. "They are a real tough team, and they continue to do what they need to do to sustain it."

Schuerholz and Jones concede that the Phillies' top three pitchers - Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels - remind them of the time when Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine were at the top of the Atlanta rotation.

"I think when it's all said and done, that pickup of Roy Oswalt is probably going to be the biggest," Jones said. "You always had to deal with Halladay and Hamels, but you could kind of navigate through the other three. Now, they have three number ones . . . and even if you don't get their 'A' game, they're still good enough to give that team a chance to win."

Perhaps the thing that seems most daunting to the Braves is the Phillies' ballpark.

"When they built that damn ballpark, we didn't have a prayer," Schuerholz said, setting up his own punch line. "They started printing money and hitting shorter home runs."

Wagner agreed that the Phillies' ballpark gives them a real advantage.

"It's pretty obvious that ballpark really gives the Phillies a real comfort zone," Wagner said. "Big Ryan [Howard] doesn't need it. He could hit it out of Yellowstone, but it makes a big difference in the confidence. Their hitters are extraordinary. I think people will look back over a 10-year stretch and say, 'It was no fun rolling in against those guys because everybody is a threat.' "

Starting Monday, the Braves have a chance to threaten the Phillies' division and league dominance as they try to give Bobby Cox one final season to remember.

"I think this one would be really special for him, and not just because he's walking away," Jones said. "I think he really, truly loves this team, and it is echoed among the players. This is one of the most fun teams that I have ever played on. I've seen Bobby smile a lot more this year than he has in years past."


Contact staff writer Bob Brookover

at 215-854-2577 or bbrookover@phillynews.com.

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