ATLANTA — The St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves eventually decided who would be the Washington Nationals’ first-ever postseason opponent. But along the way Friday night, Braves fans revolted, littering Turner Field with trash and sending players dashing to their dugouts following a costly call in a crucial moment of the National League wild-card playoff.
The Cardinals toppled the Braves, 6-3, in a game played under protest by Atlanta Manager Fredi Gonzalez following a disputed infield-fly call with the tying run at the plate in the eighth inning. The protest was rejected by Major League Baseball officials during the 19-minute delay, and the Nationals will travel to St. Louis to play the Cardinals on Sunday afternoon in Game 1 of their National League Division Series.
Andrelton Simmons came to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning with one out and the Braves trailing by three runs thanks to their shoddy defensive play. With runners at first and second, Simmons lifted a pitch from reliever Mitchell Boggs into shallow left field. Shortstop Pete Kozma raced out, maybe 50 feet into the outfield, and settled under the ball with left fielder Matt Holliday closing in behind him. Then, curiously, Kozma stopped and let the ball drop. Left field umpire Sam Holbrook, meanwhile, called the infield fly rule.
Many in the crowd of 52,631 turned raucous once they learned Simmons was ruled out. They began tossing trash onto the field and warning track. Cardinals players converged around second base to avoid the debris, and the Braves retreated to the dugout. The game was delayed as the grounds crew cleaned up the mess. Ordinary flyballs to the outfield later in the game were mocked with chants of “Infield fly!” from the crowd.
“I saw the shortstop go back and get underneath the ball where he would have had ordinary effort and would have caught the baseball, and that’s why I called the infield fly,” said Holbrook, who added that he didn’t second-guess the call after seeing the replay.
Joe Torre, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations, said he told umpiring crew chief Jeff Kellogg during the delay that he was disallowing the Braves’ protest. After the game, Torre explained to Braves General Manager Frank Wren and Manager Fredi Gonzalez that he did so because baseball rules don’t allow a protest of a judgment decision.
“It’s a little unusual circumstances based on the one-game playoff, so as far as the [normal] 24 hours and waiting for a written report, practicality, it just didn’t make sense,” said Torre, who also said he thought the correct call was made.
“I was arguing or protesting that it was not an ordinary effort,” Gonzalez said. “I thought that the shortstop had to go way out there to make a play on that flyball . . . and I thought there was some miscommunication between Holliday and Kozma.”
Said Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny: “Our guys would have made this a whole lot easier if we make the play, and they make that play 99 times out of a hundred. It just didn’t happen that time. I was just happy to see that the umpires stayed with the right call, because once that call is made, it sticks.”
After closer Jason Motte finished a four-out save by getting Dan Uggla to ground out with two runners on in the ninth, the Cardinals quickly retreated to celebrate in the visitors’ clubhouse instead of on the field.
The Braves committed the fewest errors in the NL this season, but they had three by the seventh inning of Friday’s playoff. They had won a major league-record 23 consecutive games started by pitcher Kris Medlen, 12 of them this season, but in the one that mattered most, they collapsed around him. Chipper Jones, playing the final game of his 19-year career, committed a costly error early and missed a chance to tie the game late.
The Nationals planned to board a plane at noon Saturday after learning their opponent. They won the regular season series with the Cardinals, 4-3. But in the last meeting between the teams, a three-game series at Busch Stadium last week, the Cardinals won twice, outscoring Washington, 26-12. St. Louis has won eight of its past 11 games overall.
During the playoffs, the zombie Cardinals come to life. Last season, they snuck into the playoffs on the final day of the season and won a World Series. This season, they secured the second wild-card spot on the penultimate day and topped a Braves team that was six wins clear of the Cards. St. Louis boasts a potent offense and strong pitching, good enough for the NL’s second-best run differential during the regular season.
The Nationals could benefit from not having to face the Cardinals’ top starter, Kyle Lohse, twice in the next round. Lohse started Friday’s game, ate up 52 / 3 innings, struck out six and handed the ball to Matheny with a 3-2 lead. To get there, he overcame a strange sequence with two outs in the second inning.
Lohse fired a low, inside fastball that Braves backup catcher David Ross swung through and missed. It would have ended the at-bat. But timeout, seemingly called by Ross, was requested and granted during the windup. Ross hammered the next pitch into the stands for a two-run home run and a 2-0 Atlanta lead.
The Braves unraveled in the fourth inning when Jones scooped up a potential double-play groundball from Holliday and fired a wild throw to second base. With two runners on, Cardinals cleanup hitter Allen Craig doubled to ignite a rally that put the Cardinals up 3-2.
In the same inning, Simmons killed a Braves rally when he veered nearly three feet outside the base path on a suicide squeeze with two runners on base and one out. He was called out for interference.
The Braves further collapsed in the seventh. Uggla threw a ball nearly 20 feet wide of first base on a routine groundball to start the inning. Simmons misplayed a grounder and made a wild throw home. First baseman Freddie Freeman made little attempt to chase down a ball hit between him and reliever Johnny Venters. The Cardinals pushed their lead to 6-2.
The Braves gave themselves chances to trim the deficit, fittingly with Jones up to bat in the bottom of the ninth. But they couldn’t overcome their poor defense and the controversial infield fly call in the eighth.
“I’m not willing to say that that particular call cost us the ballgame,” Jones said. “Ultimately, three errors cost us the ballgame, mine probably being the biggest.”
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