ATLANTA -- Cody Ross won't likely rank high on the list of players who have had the privilege to play against Bobby Cox in his legendary 29-year managing career. But in a sense, Ross would be exactly the type of player Cox would want: versatile, unselfish, opportunistic. If Cox learned anything in his career, it was that any player, whether slight or super-sized, can strike at any moment, regardless of the situation, so one just had to be prepared to accept it.
Cox knows one or two swings can change a game, and it doesn't have to come at the hands of a bopper such as Pat Burrell or a future star such as Buster Posey. It had been, after all, Francisco Cabrera, the unlikeliest of players, who had propelled Cox during a remarkable run with the Braves: five pennants, 14 consecutive division titles, one World Series title.
So perhaps it was fitting that two swings, a home run and an RBI single, from a role player like Ross helped end Cox's career and sent the Giants, 3-2 victors against the Braves on Monday, into the National League Championship series against the Philadelphia Phillies.
It was Ross, after running onto the infield to celebrate with teammates after the last out had been recorded, who was one of the first San Francisco players to notice a homage to Cox played on the Turner Field scoreboard. Ross also heard the ovation from the fans. At first he was struck by the cheers since the Braves had lost. But then Ross realized, "I knew they weren't cheering for us."
So Ross and the entire Giants team momentarily stopped their on-field celebration to applaud Cox, who appeared on the verge of tears.
No, this series won't likely be remembered for its excellent play. Neither team hit well (Giants, .212; Braves, .175), and both kicked the ball around at times (10 combined errors). No one would call this series a classic. But it will certainly be remembered.
This was the series that all four games were decided by one run. This was the series that Brooks Conrad became a household name. This was the series that an unforgettable manager turned in his lineup card for the last time.
And of course, it will be remembered as the time the Giants broke through.
"It's been very emotional," Ross said. "Every single pitch. Every single at-bat. Everything was incredible."
San Francisco's celebration, which had been cut short in order to honor Cox, soon turned rowdy once again after Cox saluted the crowd and walked back onto the field. Yelling could be heard just outside the team's clubhouse when the team had finished celebrating on the field. Once inside, players popped champagne and hurled everything they could into the air: beer, ice, water. And in one corner, Ross was particularly overjoyed.
During the game the Giants were buried early by Atlanta starter Derek Lowe. Ross, who entered the game with just two hits in the series, slammed a home run to left field in the sixth inning against Lowe. The solo shot not only tied the game at 1, but was also the Giants' first hit.
"It was a slider that just spun," Ross said of Lowe's pitch.
Giants infielder Edgar Renteria had noticed a flaw in Ross' approach during his first at-bat against Lowe, a strikeout.
"Cody, get your foot down," Renteria told Ross after that at-bat. "You're not getting your foot down."
Immediately after the at-bat, Ross went into the Giants' clubhouse and watched video of that sequence.
"He was right," Ross said.
In the seventh inning, Ross, with the bases loaded, struck a single to left field against reliever Jonny Venters to give the Giants a 3-2 lead they did not relinquish.
"I don't know how you can be a fan of this team all year," Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff said. "It's a grind. ... We don't do it easy."
The Giants weren't so much built as they were a work in progress. Players such as Ross, Burrell and Jose Guillen, who was not on the NLDS roster, joined the team late in the season, but contributed to a fierce playoff run that propelled the team past the Padres and into the postseason. Ross' contribution during Game 4 helped validate the Giants' aggressive approach in the trade and the in-season free-agent market.
"This game is crazy," Ross said. "You don't know where you'll end up. These guys put a claim on me, and I'm fortunate the Marlins didn't pull me back."
As soon as he arrived from Florida on Aug. 22, he was called into the office of Giants general manager Brian Sabean.
"We got you because we're trying to win," Sabean told Ross, who had heard rumors the Giants had only claimed him to keep him from being claimed by the San Diego Padres.
"Whatever you need me to do, I'll put my ego aside," Ross told Sabean.
And Ross did it all. Ross had an .819 OPS and played all three outfield positions with San Francisco. Since Ross already knew Huff and Burrell, he quickly became a popular member of the Giants' clubhouse.
After Monday's game, reserve outfielder Aaron Rowand walked up to Ross during an interview and poured beer all over his head. Both laughed. The Giants' clubhouse had often roared with laughter and yelled during the celebration. At times, the yelling had gotten so loud that it could be heard in the next room while Cox conducted his final postgame interview as manager.
The interview room was silent, except for the noise from the Giants' clubhouse as Cox walked in. He was asked if he had addressed his Braves players after the game.
"The best I could," Cox said. "I told them I was really proud of them."
Then Cox was so overwhelmed by emotion that he could not continue for a few moments.
"A grown man shouldn't do this," he whispered into the microphone.
Soon after, Cox trudged out of the room, a new man, with a new life to lead. An old baseball man like Cox knows the game will move on without him.
"For me growing up as a Braves fan, it's a little bit of a sad day," Posey said.
"We've heard a lot of talk about the Phillies' staff, but we have three guys here who line up pretty well with them," Posey said, referring to Giants starters Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez.
Surprisingly, it was Posey, the star rookie, who was the most muted during San Francisco's raucous celebration. Perhaps one shouldn't be surprised since it's Posey's unflappable demeanor that some say has made him such a formidable player.
"This isn't the end," Posey said.
Well, he was partly right. For Posey, his team carries on. For Cox, it was the end.
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.