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Conrad's errors hurt, but they're hardly the Braves' only problems

ATLANTA -- Failure, of course, is a large part of baseball. Ted Williams often noted that even the greatest hitters fail seven times out of 10. But that type of failure is also someone else's success, that of the pitcher who threw the ball.

On defense, however, failure can be excruciating in its isolation. Only in rare instances is a teammate standing near you. There is also a higher -- near-perfect, even -- expectation of success in the field and a different sort of opponent. By the time the ball reaches a fielder, it is out of the hands of the batter. If a ball is hit so hard that making a play is abnormally difficult, the official scorer will grant the batter a hit. Statistically, no other type of mistake, whether it's a swing and miss or ball that misses the zone, is branded so harshly as an error as one made in the field.

This is the difficult lesson being learned by Braves second baseman Brooks Conrad and absorbed by the sellout crowd of 53,284 at Turner Field and the millions more watching nationally on television. Conrad made three errors on Sunday, two of which led directly two Giants runs, including the ninth-inning game-winner, as San Francisco rallied for the 3-2 win and the 2-1 series lead.

"It's completely embarrassing," Conrad said. " ... I'll try to get over it. I probably won't for a long time, if ever."

There's blame to go around to both sides: to the Braves for not having a better alternative at the position and to Conrad for not making the plays expected of a pro. Conrad has now made eight errors in his last seven games, five at second base and three at third. After the game he dressed in front his locker in the home clubhouse, back to the room but no doubt sensing the media approaching, though he couldn't have known what great interest there would be in his take on the day. Upon turning around and seeing the TV camera shine his light in the face, Conrad squinted and almost let out a chuckle, one of seeming disbelief at his day and the attention it drew.

He did not duck questions, but rather answered honestly and honorably about his errors: a first-inning bobble that proved to be harmless; a second-inning drop on a pop-up that bounced out of his glove, letting Mike Fontenot score from third; and the ultimate dagger, a sharply hit ninth-inning grounder off the bat of Buster Posey in a 2-2 tie, in which Freddy Sanchez wheeled around from second to score what proved to be the winning run.

"I feel absolutely terrible right now," Conrad said. "I wish I could go dig a hole and go to sleep in it."

What the 30-year-old, third-year major leaguer with just 139 games of experience did not do was offer excuses. The popup came at the end of a long run into shallow right field near the line and still he was fielding it half over his shoulder and looking into the sun. The ninth-inning grounder nearly hit the second-base umpire, but he did not excuse his inability to see. Though he spent most of his professional career as a second baseman, he primarily played third base this year but did not mention any rustiness. Instead, he called them "stupid mistakes."

Part of the beauty of a team sport is, quite obviously, the team. This one has been through considerable adversity, too. The Braves lost nine straight games at the end of April and were in last place for 17 straight days. They have lost three of their best players to injury: a future Hall of Famer in third baseman Chipper Jones, one of the game's great closers in Billy Wagner and arguably the team MVP in All-Star infielder Martin Prado.

Manager Bobby Cox sets a tone of confidence and support, values this club seems to understand. During a pitching change shortly after his third error, first baseman Derrek Lee walked over and said a few encouraging words to Conrad.

After the game, almost every player went out of his way to speak well of his teammate. No one threw him under the bus.

Jones, long the face of the franchise, said, "There's not a guy in here who wouldn't take Brooks Conrad into the foxhole any day. We love the guy to death, and he works his tail off. He deserves better than what happened today."

Leftfielder Matt Diaz added, "We hurt for him, but we haven't lost faith in him."

Backup catcher David Ross, one of the team's vocal leaders, began recalling Conrad's timely heroics this year -- most notably a walkoff grand slam to beat the Reds in May and a two-run homer in the ninth inning against Houston to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead and eventual win.

"Everyone in this clubhouse knows Brooks Conrad is one of the reasons we are in the playoffs, 100 percent," Ross said. "Brooks Conrad did not lose that game for us. How many hits did we have today? Three?"

Atlanta actually had four but the point was made -- the Braves' team failures at the plate were as much or more of the problem than Conrad's errors, even if the latter is what this game will be remembered for.

Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez was brilliant for 7 1/3 innings, allowing just one walk and two hits while striking out 11. He exited with a runner on base and a 1-0 lead in the eighth -- replaced just after Conrad popped up while attempting a sacrifice bunt -- when Braves pinch hitter Eric Hinske hit a hooking liner off reliever Sergio Romo that went just far enough and just fair enough, caroming off the right-field foul pole for the 2-1 lead. The run charged to Sanchez was the first earned run allowed by a Giants starting pitcher in 23 innings this series, a further reminder of how silent Atlanta's bats have been.

And the bullpen did squander a one-run lead in the ninth before Conrad's last error. A little more than an hour before the day's first pitch, Wagner met the media and said to confirm he was being shut down until at least the World Series with an oblique injury and might have thrown his last pitch before retiring at season's end. In the ninth Cox called upon rookie Craig Kimbrel, who heretofore had been brilliant, but he allowed a hit and a walk before another rookie reliever, Mike Dunn, entered and yielded an RBI single to Aubrey Huff.

After the game Cox was noncommittal about whether he would start Conrad again tomorrow, but that is certainly not his only problem. As a team, the Braves are batting just .165 (17-for-103) this series. The end of their bullpen is in some flux now too. Still, the Braves nearly pulled it out.

"Well, we had this one won," Cox said. " ... 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."

Those key personnel losses have made the margin for error razor thin, which only amplifies Conrad's errors. But they weren't the only errors they made. And there's still at least one more game to be played and, who knows, one in which Conrad could even be the hero.

"Knowing Brooks," Jones said, "he'll hit a three-run homer in the eighth inning tomorrow and send this back to San Francisco."

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