Ankiel shows Giant-slayer power at 11th hour

Ankiel shows Giant-slayer power at 11th hour

SAN FRANCISCO -- While they continue to insist they don't like having their backs pressed against the wall on such a regular basis, the Braves certainly don't seem to mind showing their resilient spirit wasn't just for the regular season.

The Braves erased an early four-run deficit, overcame the loss of closer Billy Wagner and claimed a 5-4, 11-inning win over the Giants on Friday night after Rick Ankiel's splash solo blast landed in the water on the other side of the right-field wall at AT&T Park.

And with one more rally, the Braves earned a split in San Francisco, their National League Division Series matchup tied 1-1 as they return to Atlanta.


"This team never gives up," Braves first baseman Derrek Lee said. "Our backs were against the wall. This was pretty much a must-win game. It seems like every time we come into that situation, we find a way to get it done."

Down four runs through the first two innings and forced to watch Wagner limp off the mound with an oblique strain after a slumbering offense came to life in time to stage a rally, the Braves flirted with the possibility of having to attempt to do what no other NL team has done.

Then they essentially did what they did during the regular season, when they led the NL with 46 come-from-behind victories and the Majors with 25 last at-bat victories. Lee started the rally with leadoff singles in the sixth and eighth innings. But the decisive blow was delivered by Ankiel, who turned on Ramon Ramirez's fastball and produced the first postseason homer of his career.

Down but never out
Most come-from-behind wins during the 2010 regular season
Rank Team Wins
1. New York Yankees 48
2. Atlanta Braves 46
3. Cincinnati Reds 45
4. Chicago White Sox 44
5. Philadelphia Phillies 42
Tampa Bay Rays 42

Before this, the most popular link Ankiel had to the postseason revolved around his inability to find the strike zone back when he was a 20-year-old pitcher for the Cardinals facing the Braves in the 2000 NLDS. Ten years later, he has reinvented himself as a talented defensive center fielder who obviously has the ability to produce timely power.

"It's hard to describe or put into words," Ankiel said. "The biggest homer of my career by far, and to be honest with you, I wanted to go from the batter's box to the dugout. I didn't want to run the bases. I wanted to be with the guys. But what a cool way to win."

Had the Braves lost this game, they might have finally found a corner that they couldn't escape. None of the 18 NL teams that have lost the first two games of the Division Series have advanced to the NL Championship Series.

But courtesy of a three-run eighth capped by Alex Gonzalez's game-tying two-run double off All-Star closer Brian Wilson, clutch relief work provided by Craig Kimbrel and Kyle Farnsworth, and Ankiel's blast, the Braves find themselves with history on their side.

In eight of the previous 11 NLDS (of the Wild Card era, excluding 1981) that saw a team gain a split on the road, the team that gained that split has gone on to win the best-of-five series.

"This is the way our team is," said Braves catcher Brian McCann, who delivered key singles in the sixth and eighth innings. "If you've seen this team play for 162 games, this isn't something that is out of the ordinary. This is something that has been happening all season long."

While this was a joyful comeback victory for the Braves, it proved costly when, in the 10th, Wagner strained his left oblique muscle and had to limp off with an injury that will prevent him from pitching in the NLCS, if the Braves advance that far.

With a runner at second base and one out in the 10th, Kyle Farnsworth walked the bases loaded, then got Buster Posey to direct a grounder toward Troy Glaus, who had previously played third base for just two innings this year. But proving he still has some of the skills he previously possessed while manning the hot corner, Glaus decided to throw to second, where Omar Infante turned an inning-ending double play.

Better late than never
Most final at-bat wins in regular season
Rank Team Wins
1. Atlanta Braves 25
2. Philadelphia Phillies 22
Cincinnati Reds 22
4. Colorado Rockies 21
5. San Francisco Giants 20
Texas Rangers 20

Farnsworth then worked a scoreless 11th inning to notch the win and distance himself from the nightmare he experienced when he last pitched for the Braves in a postseason game. The veteran reliever squandered a five-run eighth-inning lead in the decisive Game 4 of the 2004 NLDS against the Astros.

"That's part of the game, you just have to take the good with the bad and keep on going," Farnsworth said.

The Braves entered the sixth inning facing a four-run deficit and looking for their first run of the series. Consecutive sixth-inning singles by Lee and McCann allowed Atlanta to finally dent the scoreboard. It also foreshadowed what was to come in the eighth, when these two once again delivered consecutive singles to put runners at the corners and prompt Giants manager Bruce Bochy to ask Wilson to notch a six-out save.

Brooks Conrad delivered a key sacrifice bunt ahead of the game-tying two-run double that Gonzalez drilled to the left-center-field gap. Kimbrel, who will likely serve as the closer in Wagner's absence, then delivered two scoreless innings to set the stage for the Braves' improbable finish.

"You can never figure baseball out," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "But I was telling our guys before the game, 'You know win this one, the momentum swings the other way.'"

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