McCann, Braves back in playoffs after four-year absence

Photo by Brandon Brigman

Photo by Brandon Brigman

ATLANTA -- Brian McCann put on sunglasses for protection, hoping that they might help keep his eyes away from stinging spray of champagne and beer.

Forget it.

Soon the glasses were on the clubhouse floor and the Braves' celebration had barely begun Sunday at Turner Field.

McCann experienced a division-clinching party in 2005 during the catcher from Duluth's rookie season. That was a much tamer event, even though the Braves were only National League wild-card entrants this time.

Atlanta had gone four seasons without postseason baseball after 14 consecutive division titles and this was manager Bobby Cox's final season. So the emotion, along the bubbly, flowed freely. Very freely.

"This is as much fun as I've ever had," McCann shouted over the dim. "I couldn't be happier."

The Braves had just spent a couple of hours, in McCann's words, "Being big San Francisco Giants fans." That changed, of course, once the San Diego Padres lost in San Francisco.

The Braves will face the Giants in the best-of-five National League Division Series beginning Thursday in San Francisco. They'll be underdogs despite winning the regular-season series 4-3, but what would you expect?

His team beset by injuries, Cox used 109 different lineups this season. But somehow the Braves still made the postseason. It wasn't easy.

The Braves had a nine-game losing streak early in the season, bounced back thanks to late-game heroics and baseball's best home record, then limped to the finish, their bats mostly silent, after being overtaken by Philadelphia in the National League East.

In danger of missing the postseason after two losses to the Phillies, the Braves held on to win 8-7 on Sunday and then rooted the Giants on to a 3-0 victory over the Padres that meant there wouldn't have to be a play-in game today.

"This is the hardest-working, hardest-trying team we've ever had here," Cox said

"We've stuck together for 162 games," McCann said. "We've had some ups and downs, but we've always answered the bell every time we've needed to. Today was the same thing we've been doing all year long."

If the Braves somehow make the World Series, they'll have home field for the extra game thanks to McCann's game-winning homer for the NL in the All-Star Game. But the catcher had his ups and downs this season, just like his team.

McCann's eye issues flared up again early on and he never put up the kind of high batting average that was expected after he hit so well during spring training. He ended up hitting .269, but he had 25 doubles, 21 homers and 77 RBIs in 143 games.

With Chipper Jones injured, McCann and Tim Hudson -- Sunday's winning pitcher -- are the only active Braves that helped bring the Braves their last division title in 2005.

"It means a lot to get back to the playoffs in Bobby's last year," McCann said. "What the Braves did winning 14 consecutive division championships was amazing and he's the one who made it happen.

"He deserves this as a sendoff. We want to keep his last season going as long as possible."

McCann was seven years old when the Braves went from worst to first in 1991. It wasn't until 1995, when Cox's team beat the Indians in the World Series, that the catcher became a real fan.

"Before that, I was just being a kid," McCann said. "I was more worried about hitting a Whiffle ball over the fence than following the Braves every day and living or dying with them."

With the end of Cox's managerial career on the line, it was life or death for the Braves on Sunday. Even after they'd won, they had to watch the Giants and Padres go at it on TV for more than two hours.

"I was arguing with the umpire on every pitch. It would have been a 3,000-mile ejection," Cox said of the ninth inning.

After nearly a half hour of celebrating in the clubhouse, the Braves went out to the field to celebrate with the 500 or so fans who had lingered at Turner Field after watching the end of the game in San Francisco on the scoreboard.

As the faithful did the tomahawk chop as if it was the 1995 again, Cox was hoisted to the shoulders of some of his players and given a wet victory ride as the bubbly continued to flow.

"I'm so proud of this team," Cox said after finally being let down. "You have no idea."

"This is what you play for," McCann said.