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Spin Forward: Gut-check time for Braves

Spin Forward: Gut-check time for Braves

ATLANTA -- If the Braves are going to extend the career of venerable manager Bobby Cox, they're going to have to dig deep into their reservoir of resiliency.

It's a fair question to ask at this point: Do they have any left?

That reservoir had been tapped practically daily down the stretch, and the Braves will need to dip into it at least one more time Monday in Game 4 (7:30 p.m. ET, TBS) to send the series back to San Francisco for a deciding Game 5.

One thing they can't do is get healthy overnight.

Battered and bruised all year, the Braves saw closer Billy Wagner go down with an injury in Game 2, and they were handed a couple more worrisome moments in Game 3 when Jason Heyward and Brian McCann suffered hand injuries they both played through in a 3-2 loss to the Giants.

One thing they can do is play better baseball in all facets of the game -- with the possible exception of starting pitching, which has matched the Giants blow-for-blow -- than they have in the first three games this series.

They certainly can't give away runs to a Giants team that has struggled to score them. One of Atlanta's heroes down the stretch, rookie Brooks Conrad, committed three errors at second base to tie a postseason record, making the Braves miss injured All-Star Martin Prado all that much more. And with Wagner out, the Braves couldn't close the door in the ninth, despite the efforts of four relievers.

This isn't the way Cox wants to go out, certainly, and not a soul in Braves Country wants to see it happen that way, either.

But the Braves are about to the point where they have to play perfect baseball to keep their season -- and Cox's career -- going.

"We had this one won," Cox said after Game 3. "We gave up a walk, a base hit and a base hit. You know, we're not the best team in baseball, OK, but we can win games, and we can compete against anybody. But we can't afford to make mistakes."

Now more than ever.

To this point, mistakes have cost Atlanta dearly, and the team's offense hasn't been able to cover them up with runs. Other than an eighth-inning rally followed by a 10th-inning homer by Rick Ankiel in Game 2 and a pinch-hit homer by Eric Hinske in Game 3 that rocked the house at Turner Field, the Braves' offense has been shut down by the Giants' stellar pitching.

And if anyone thinks 21-year-old starter Madison Bumgarner will make it easy on them in Game 4, they haven't seen the rookie left-hander work -- especially on the road. He boasted a 1.19 ERA in 10 road starts, and went 2-0 with a 1.18 ERA in his final six starts down the stretch of a tense postseason quest.

With Heyward and McCann, their two best hitters, likely to be sore Monday, who can step up? Used mainly as a decoy in Sunday's game, veteran third baseman Troy Glaus could be called upon to help with his right-handed power bat against Bumgarner, with the possibility of leadoff hitter Omar Infante shifting over to second base to take Conrad out of the lineup after his rough go of it Sunday.

"I'll have to sleep on it," Cox said when asked if Conrad would be back in the lineup Monday.

As for the ninth inning going into Game 4, your guess is as good as Cox's -- and that's a scary thought when anyone can match wits with a man who has managed for 29 years.

"I have no clue. We're playing it by ear the whole way," Cox said. "And we're trying to win the game. We're not trying to lose these games. We're trying to win them."

And by golly, they almost did win another one, thanks to another theme Atlanta has carried throughout this remarkable season -- clutch hits, including pinch-homers from Hinske.

But ultimately, the Braves' ability to come back again and again has been strained to the very limit now, so they're going to have to take their resiliency to a new level. They have to play nearly flawless ball to win this series now, period.

Otherwise, the extended goodbye to Cox will end rather abruptly in the postseason.

John Schlegel 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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