It took just one game for Major League Baseball's new one-game wild-card playoff format to be exposed as woefully insufficient. What was supposed to be a thrilling new sudden-death playoff between the Braves and the Cardinals turned controversial and ugly in the bottom of the eighth inning at Turner Field.
A questionable call by the leftfield umpire and the disgraceful -- borderline criminal -- behavior of Braves fans who subsequently littered the field with debris, primarily beer bottles, caused a 19 minute delay that forced the Cardinals to make a pitching change. When play finally resumed, the game was being played under protest by Atlanta, and the fact that the outcome of a single baseball game is far too susceptible to being influenced by a bad call or fluke play had overshadowed the intended excitement of the double-elimination format.
Here's what happened: The Braves were trailing 6-3 in the bottom of the eighth inning with one out and men on first and second when Andrelton Simmons hit a pop-up into shallow leftfield. Cardinals shortstop Peter Kozma raced back to make the catch and appeared to have the ball measured when he suddenly ducked out of the way as if he had been called off by leftfielder Matt Holliday. However, Holliday had not done so, and the ball dropped untouched for an apparent single that loaded the bases. Except that at the last second before Kozma ducked away, leftfield umpire Sam Holbrook signaled for the infield fly rule, which meant Simmons was automatically out, taking the tying run off base and erasing one of the Braves' five remaining outs.
Holbrook erred in invoking the infield fly in that situation for two reasons. The first was that Kozma, though he did ultimately appear to be in position to catch the ball, had to race well into shallow leftfield to make the play. The infield fly rule specifically states that it is to be used on a fair fly ball "which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort." Kozma's was not an ordinary effort (which was the argument Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez made in his protest, which was quickly overturned by the MLB officials on hand). Second, the rule states that "when it seems apparent that a batted ball will be an Infield Fly, the umpire shall immediately declare Infield Fly for the benefit of the runners." In this case, Holbrook didn't signal for the infield fly rule until the ball was more than half-way through its descent, mere moments before Kozma flinched and the ball hit the outfield grass.
So it was an awful call, but it might not have actually impacted the result of the game, again for two reasons. The first is that there's no guarantee the Braves would have scored in that inning had the call not been made. The second is that there's reason to suspect that Holbrook's call was what Kozma reacted to, and that if it hadn't been made, Kozma would have caught the ball. After all, this was the first major league postseason game of Kozma's career. He's surely not used to having an umpire's voice come from behind him in shallow leftfield.
By that logic, it wasn't the play itself that cast a pall over baseball's brand new bauble, but the impact, both the ugly fan reaction, and what the play signified,. Namely, that a team that battled for 162 games to get to the wild-card game could have its season ended by forces beyond its -- and its opponents' -- control.
Holbrook's call might not have been overturned if it had been subject to instant replay. The umpires certainly had enough time to discuss the play among themselves and made no motion toward overturning it. Still, baseball's decision to introduce a new format in which four teams will be subject to a double-elimination game every year without accompanying that format with expanded replay was reckless and has already resulted in a black eye for MLB, one made all the worse by the fact that this game turned out to be the last for future first-ballot Hall of Famer Chipper Jones.
Not that Jones was having a great night before the controversial call. In fact, Jones' fourth-inning throwing error -- which opened the door to a three-run inning by St. Louis -- and first-pitch groundout while representing the tying run with two outs in the bottom of the seventh were the key plays of the game before, and very likely after, the infield fly call.
Early on, the first wild-card game in major league history lived up to the hype. Starters Kris Medlen of Atlanta and Kyle Lohse of St. Louis looked sharp early, combining to strike out seven men in the first two innings. Braves rightfielder Jason Heyward fought the late-afternoon sun to take a home run away from Yaider Molina to start the top of the second, and David Ross, starting in place of McCann in a bold but wise move by Fredi Gonzalez, hit a two-run shot in the bottom of the inning to give the Braves an early 2-0 lead.
Medlen didn't give up a hit until Carlos Beltran led off the bottom of the fourth with a single, and he got the next batter, Holliday, to hit a potential double-play ball to third, but Jones couldn't find the handle on the ball and airmailed it into rightfield, turning a potential two-out, bases-empty situation into no-outs, runners on the corners. Medlen gave up an RBI double to Allen Craig but retired the next three men in order. However, since Jones failed to convert a single out on Holliday's grounder, the first two of those outs plated runs, giving the Cardinals a 3-2 lead they'd never relinquish.
Simmons was at the center of another wild play in the bottom of the fourth when, with runners on the corners and one out, Gonzalez called for a safety squeeze. Simmons got a bunt down and drew a throw to first, but he ranged well into fair territory before he got to first base and Lohse's throw ricocheted off his helmet. Simmons was correctly ruled to have been out of the baseline and was called out, with the would-be tying run, which appeared to score on the errant throw, being returned to third base, where it was stranded.
A pair of throwing errors by Dan Uggla and Simmons in the top of the seventh allowed the Cardinals to go up 6-2 despite collecting just four hits to that point. The Braves got one run back after a pinch-hit triple by Jose Constanza off reliever Edward Mujica in the bottom of the seventh and put the tying runs in scoring position with two outs via a Martin Prado single and Jason Heyward double, but Jones, in what then looked to be the final at-bat of his career, grounded out on the first pitch he saw from lefty Mark Rzepczynski.
Then came the infield fly call. After the debris was cleared and Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny had brought in his closer, Jason Motte, to replace Mitchell Boggs, who was forced to sit idle during the delay, McCann walked to load the bases with two outs. Motte, though, struck out Michael Bourn to end the threat.
The Braves made one last push in the bottom of the ninth after Jones, in what was his final at-bat, hit a broken-bat infield single and Freddie Freeman, who was 3-for-4 with a walk, doubled to put men on second and third. Uggla, representing the tying run, grounded out to second to end the game and the Braves' season.
Thus, for the second year in a row, the Braves' season ended one-game shy of the Division Series while the Cardinals moved on at Atlanta's expense. That, along with Jones's retirement and the fact that the defending world champions will now get to play a proper best-of-five series against the league-best Nationals starting on Sunday, should be the story tonight.
Unfortunately, it has all been overshadowed by a questionable umpiring call and what that call exposed about baseball's new playoff system: That a team which led another by six games in the standings could have its season wiped out in one evening by a bad call without so much as the right to have it reviewed. If baseball doesn't fix this soon, something like that is going to happen, and it will make the sour taste from Friday night's game seem sweet when it does.