|Fans litter the field with trash after a controversial infield fly call. (Getty Images)|
ATLANTA – The questionable call came out of left field, as the clutch-as-can-be Cardinals remained alive while the great Braves star Chipper Jones' magical Hall-of-Fame career ended in a defeat. The game featured three Braves errors (one by Chipper), a debris delay courtesy of an unruly crowd, a quickly denied protest and a whole lot more controversy than MLB hoped or bargained for.
The game surely lived up to its name as the first ever one-game, do-or-die wild-card playoff.
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The new format was intended to trigger excitement. But what baseball got instead was unwanted controversy.
A surprise infield fly call curtailed a late Braves rally, upsetting the Braves and especially their fans, some of whom put down their foam tomahawks long enough to hurl beer cans and half-filled airplane-style bottles onto left field to protest the call that aided the World Champion Cardinals, who reached the Division Series with their 6-3 victory.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez argued vehemently after the unexpected call came just as Cardinals rookie shortstop Pete Kozma backed away from the ball after presumably thinking left fielder Matt Holliday was about to catch it, letting it fall. Gonzalez immediately protested the call, but MLB VP Joe Torre quickly denied the protest, explaining that judgment calls can't be overturned.
Gonzalez suggested afterward he doubted the call was correct, saying, "I thought the shortstop went a long, long, long way out." Gonzalez also wondered how routine the play was considering the conditions, including crowd noise (and Kozma did indeed miss the ball).
The call was a killer, as it removed the batter, rookie Andrelton Simmons, from first base, and instead of the bases being loaded with one out in the eighth inning, the Braves were left with runners at second and third and two out. The rally later died completely when Cardinals closer Jason Motte struck out Michael Bourn with the bases loaded.
The call was crucial, but the Braves handled defeat professionally. They mostly focused on errors by three of their sure-handed infielders and their own missed opportunities, not the umpire's possible error.
"Ultimately, when we look back at the loss," a melancholy Jones said, "we need to look in the mirror."
Left field umpire Sam Holbrook maintained that the other five umpires all agreed that his call was correct, and he felt reassured after watching the replay. Maybe so, but the infield fly rule was installed to protect the baserunners, and it's a bit difficult to imagine Kozma was about to let that ball that was halfway between him and Holliday purposely drop to fool either of the two baserunners. He did appear to be camping under it before he inexplicably pulled away.
The call seemed pretty iffy here. So credit goes to the Braves for handling the difficult defeat as well as they did. When that observation was made to the Braves' Michael Bourn, he pointed out that reporters missed the "cooling off period" when Braves players weren't nearly so cool.
Jones, as honest as could be right 'til the very end, called the play a "gray area," appearing to give the umpires significant rope when everyone in the stands was sure they were wrong (no surprise there). There was a 19-minute debris delay to clear the field of garbage while the Cards filed toward the dugout in their own "cooling off" time (for the fans).
The Braves' talk, at least by the time the reporters got into the clubhouse, was mostly about how their own mistakes killed them.
"The one call isn't the thing that determined the whole thing," Bourn said.
Like Jones, Bourn opted for the mirror. "That wasn't us out there tonight," he said. "We pride ourselves on playing the game right. Tonight, we just didn't have it going."
Even starting pitcher Kris Medlen, unbeatable as a starter going back to last year, wasn't quite himself. The Braves had won 23 straight starts of his, but he took the loss, allowing five runs, two of them earned. He had allowed only 11 runs in 12 starts this year.
Medlen wasn't as perfect as usual, but he wasn't to blame, either. Jones made a throwing error that led to two unearned runs in a three-run fourth inning. Second baseman Dan Uggla and Simmons both made errors, a shock considering the Braves led the National League in defense for 162 games. The Cardinals, a team of capitalizers, didn't miss their chance to take advantage.
The Cardinals are making a habit of winning the close ones. Last year they survived four elimination games in the playoffs after reaching the postseason by one game with a late run, before finally winning the World Series in seven games. This year, they won the second wild-card spot, finishing six games behind the Braves while losing five of six to Atlanta in the regular season.
Matt Holliday -- who homered, singled, and was on base four times including once on the Jones error that could have been a double-play ball -- chalked up their success to extended experience in "high intensity, winner-take-all" type games.
Of course, Holliday concluded, "I think it's taking years off my life."
To say nothing about how the Braves feel.
Jones felt responsible. "Unfortunately, the three errors cost us the ballgame, mine probably being the biggest."
There was a lot of lamenting in Atlanta's clubhouse. Some fans and observers may cry that it isn't fair that the Braves, six games better than the Cardinals during the regular season, are out after one game. And Gonzalez wondered if the system might be "tweaked" next year. The answer is no, by the way.
Many of the Braves seemed a bit stunned that it was truly the end.
"It hasn't even sunk in that our season's over and Chipper's career is over," said David Ross, the surprise starter at catcher whose two-run home run gave the Braves a brief 2-0 lead.
"I don't know if I'm sad or pissed," Ross also said. "I don't even know what emotion I have."
The Braves fans weren't nearly so conflicted. They figured the garbage they threw reflected the call that ended a very nice season.