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Defense fast becoming liability for Braves

Defense fast becoming liability for Braves

SAN FRANCISCO -- Like Rick Pitino once told his Boston Celtics that Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale weren't going to be walking through the locker room door any time soon, the Braves know that Chipper Jones and Martin Prado aren't going to be a part of their lineup for the remainder of the season.

The season-ending injuries suffered by Jones and Prado have undoubtedly weakened the Braves' offense. But their absence could prove most detrimental to a strong pitching staff that no longer has the benefit of having the support of an experienced third baseman.

As dominant as Tim Lincecum was while recording 14 strikeouts and going the distance in the 1-0 win the Giants claimed over the Braves in Game 1 of the National League Division Series at AT&T Park on Thursday night, Omar Infante's inexperience at third base proved to be decisive in the outcome.

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"It's kind of hard right now because I haven't played third base in a long time," Infante said. "It's kind of hard to adapt at that position. But I'm going to work harder [before Friday's game] and get it figured out and try to feel more comfortable at third base."

After second-base umpire Paul Emmel rewarded Buster Posey with a fourth-inning stolen base in a questionable call, Derek Lowe induced the two-out grounder that he needed off Cody Ross' bat. Unfortunately, the grounder eluded the glove of Infante, who had started at third base in Sunday's regular-season finale for the first time since July 28.

Posey scored on the play to provide Lincecum the only run that he needed -- and caused Braves manager Bobby Cox further concern about his makeshift defense.

"[Lowe] pitched tremendous," Cox said. "We kicked the ball at second [base]. We kicked that ball at third [base]."

Cox chose to issue a two-out intentional walk to Pablo Sandoval, who hit .208 with runners in scoring position this season, before Ross came to the plate. When asked about his decision, Cox pointed to the defensive miscue that followed.

"[Lowe] made the pitch and got a ground ball," Cox said. "We kicked it."

This has recently been an all-too-familiar response from Cox, who saw the Braves allow 17 unearned runs in their final 29 games of the regular season. They had allowed 17 unearned runs in the 53 games that preceded this ugly spell.

When Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury on Aug. 10, the Braves were confident that Prado could prove every bit as effective at third base. When Prado suffered season-ending injuries (hip pointer and torn oblique muscle) on Sept. 27, they hoped Brooks Conrad or Infante could adequately play third base.

Conrad played third base in the first four games that the Braves played without Prado. The 30-year-old rookie infielder was shifted to the more familiar second-base position after committing costly throwing errors last Friday and Saturday.

This didn't exactly prove to be a cure-all transition. Conrad's inability to cleanly field Andres Torres' third-inning grounder Thursday gave him an error in five consecutive games.

Infante has been invaluable to the Braves while playing a variety of positions and proving productive throughout their lineup, namely the leadoff spot that he has inhabited for the past two months. But his miscue in this postseason opener has led Cox to start thinking about his other options at third base.

"Troy Glaus can play third base and [Eric] Hinske can play third and first," Cox said during his postgame news conference.

Glaus spent the majority of his career at third base before transitioning into a first baseman this year. The former All-Star did spend the final week of August with the Triple-A Gwinnett club attempting to reacclimate himself to the third-base position.

While Glaus' mobility seemed to be an issue, scouts revealed that he made all of the routine plays while playing for Gwinnett. Unfortunately, the Braves haven't been able to say the same about the players they've positioned at third base over the past week.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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