Braves clinch wild card, first postseason berth since 2005

So they did what they've done most of the season, making things a bit excruciating before pulling out the most important Braves win in five years.

Billy Wagner gave up a pair of run-scoring hits in a three-run Phillies eighth inning before striking out the side in the ninth for an 8-7 win in the regular-season finale, and a few hours later the Braves had their first postseason berth in five years after San Francisco beat San Diego 3-0.

Atlanta's win coupled with San Diego's loss left the Braves as the National League wild card winner, and the Braves will face the Giants in a best-of-five division series that starts Thursday in San Francisco.

First pitch of Game 1 will be at 9:37 p.m. Eastern Time. Game 2 will be played in San Francisco on Friday, also starting at 9:37 p.m. Game 3 will be in Atlanta on Sunday and Game 4, if necessary, would be in Atlanta on Monda. A possible fifth game would be in San Francisco.

"We just never quit," said a champagne-soaked Wagner in a clubhouse party that began some three hours after Atlanta's game ended. "Every time it looks like we're going down and we shouldn't be where we're at, it seems that we fight back and find a way and just continue to battle.

"You look at who we've got on that team, there's not a lot of people that are going to go, ‘Oh, they can compete with some of these teams.' But we've done it all year long. We've proven that we deserve to be in the playoffs."

Tim Hudson (17-9) pitched seven strong innings (four runs, two hits, both homers), and Brooks Conrad and Omar Infante drove in two runs apiece for the Braves, who woke up their offense and avoided being swept by the Phillies before a sellout crowd of 52,613 at Turner Field.

The Braves began their celebration after watching the other game on their clubhouse TVs, with San Francisco beating San Diego to clinch the NL West and leave the Padres (90-72) a game short of the Braves (91-71).

"I was arguing with the umpire on every pitch," Cox said of watching the last half-inning of the Giants' 3-0 win. Cox joked, "It would have been a 3,000-mile ejection."

The Braves' rollicking party moved from the clubhouse back to the field, along with wives, girlfriends, clubhouse and office workers, and team officials. A few Braves players hoisted Cox on their shoulders, and, when the retiring manager's head popped up above the scrum, hundreds of fans still in the stands roared with approval and chanted "Bob-ee! Bob-ee!".

“It’s kind of uncharacteristic for Bobby to be out here [celebrating]," injured third baseman Chipper Jones said. "He really is [enjoying] this. That’s kind of been the way he’s been all year. I’ve seen him take a step back and really enjoy everything, whether it’s been in the middle of the season or here at the end."

Wagner recorded the 422nd and presumably final regular-season save of his career, with his plans still intact to retire once the Braves' ride is over. Wagner said the Braves talked about making sure this wasn't Cox's final game.

"When you say you're retiring, there's no more tomorrows,"  Wagner said. " So we wanted, as a team, to go out there and do our best work and give him a chance to go out on top."

The Braves trailed 2-1 before scoring four runs in the fifth inning against reliever Danys Baez, who briefly was a Brave in 2006. Baez did a lot more Sunday to help them get to the postseason than he did in ‘06. The last of five hits off Baez were Hudson's  two-out RBI single followed by Infante's two-run triple.

"This team is the hardest-working, hardest-trying team we've ever had here," said Cox, who was feted in a pregame ceremony Saturday that drew a regular-season Atlanta Braves record crowd to Turner Field.

Hudson was asked if it seemed appropriate that this Braves team would take it to the last inning of the last game of the season.

"Why wouldn't it?" he said, smiling. "It's just kind of our nature, I guess. Better late than never." But it's been a good year for us. It's been a lot of fun. We've got some great guys in this locker room and we've busted our tails all year."

Hundreds of Braves fans did the Tomahawk Chop and war chant behind the Braves' dugout as they watched the final outs of the Giants-Padres game on Turner Field's huge center-field videoboard.

"We did what we had to today," catcher Brian McCann said. "We had to come out here and win, put the pressure on, and we did that… The team has stuck together for 162 games. 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."

Wagner struck out Shane Victorino, Brian Schneider and Greg Dobbs in order in the ninth inning, all of them looking, at strike 3 as Wagner took full advantage of the late-afternoon shadows at Turner Field by throwing them plenty of hard-biting breaking balls.

It was the first time all season that Wagner was called upon to get more than three outs, and for a while it looked dicey.

Jayson Werth's two-run homer in the seventh cut the Braves' lead to 8-4. Hudson, working on short rest for the second consecutive start, gave up only two hits --  two-run homers by Werth and by John Mayberry in the third.

Jimmy Rollins led off the eighth with a single off reliever Jonny Venters, and Mike Sweeney followed with a grounder that went between the legs of third baseman Infante, who moved over from second base on Sunday after Conrad made crucial errors at third base in losses Friday and Saturday.

In came Wagner, his "Enter Sandman" intro music from Metallica blaring and an excited crowd on its feet.

Wilson Valdez greeted him with a single up the middle that drove in one run, and Ben Francisco followed with a pinch double that brought in two more runs to narrow the lead to a single run.

After falling behind in the count 3-1 against the next hitter, Werth, Wagner opted to intentionally walk him. With Raul Ibanez batting, Francisco and Werth executed a double-steal to put two  in scoring position. But Wagner struck out Ibanez on three pitches to end the inning..

"Don't think that didn't run through my head out there --  if you screw this up, you go home and always be a goat," Wagner said.  "I was happy to go out there and compete, make some pitches, and have another day to go out there and sweat."

Cox was asked after the game whether he even considered replacing Wagner for the ninth inning, after Wagner needed 21 pitches to get through the eighth.

"No, not Billy," Cox said. " You would have been getting a new manager; I'd have been dead, if I had told him he wasn't going back."

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