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October 6, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

NL Wild Card Game Recap: Cardinals 6, Braves 3

by R.J. Anderson

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In an unfortunate turn of events, the first-ever Wild Card Game, and official 2012 postseason opener, will be known for an umpire’s call rather than the competitive and exciting play between two good teams.

The call happened in the eighth inning. Atlanta, trailing by three runs, had runners on first and second with nobody out and shortstop Andrelton Simmons up. Simmons hit a flyball to left field that sent his counterpart, Pete Kozma, dashing into the outfield and asking for outfield assistance. The help never came, but the ball did, as it dropped for an apparent hit, giving the Braves a bases-loaded, one-out situation with Brian McCann striding to the plate. That would have been the case if not for one messy minor detail: the left field umpire called an infield fly at the last possible instance, freeing the Cardinals of their defensive burden and costing the Braves a baserunner and an out. (The baserunners’ advances were legal under the infield fly rule, and so they stood.)

Fredi Gonzalez stormed out of the dugout and gave the umpires a fit before officially requesting a protest (the Commissioner’s office declined this request). Braves fans littered the outfield with cups, bottles, Mark Lemke, and anything else that happened to be removable from the Turner Field stands. The ambiguity of the infield fly rule is as much to blame as anything. An infield fly, as described by MLB.com, is “a fair fly ball” that can be “caught by an infielder with ordinary effort.” The definition goes on to state 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.”

The play comes down to measures of length: the ball seemed too far into the outfield for the call, the umpire waited until Kozma had turned his back on the play, and so on. The rule is in place to prevent drop-and-pop double plays. But there was no danger of a double play on this particular play; in fact, if Kozma’s misplay was intentional, you would have no choice but to question his baseball awareness. 

Once play resumed, Mike Matheny inserted his closer, Jason Motte, to face McCann. Motte walked McCann to load the bases, and then nearly walked Michael Bourn before coming back from a 3-0 count to strike out the Braves center fielder. Atlanta mounted one more rally, in the ninth, but fell short, thus ending its season.

Picking up the game in the eighth inning is doing a disservice to the action that came in the innings before. So let’s start from the beginning.

The starting pitching matchup pitted two strike-throwing sinkerballers, Kris Medlen and Kyle Lohse. During the early going, Medlen appeared to have the upper hand, as he had not allowed a hit through three innings. Lohse did not have a chance to get through three innings without running into trouble.

Lohse started the second inning just fine. He struck out the first two batters before issuing a walk to Dan Uggla. On a 1-2 count against David Ross, whose starting assignment drew a lot of attention on Thursday afternoon, Lohse threw a changeup down and in. Ross swung through the pitch, and that would’ve ended the inning except the umpire had granted Ross time. Lohse decided to go back to the same pitch on the real 1-2 count, but instead left the changeup out over the plate. Ross, no dummy, smoked it into the left field stands and gave the Braves a 2-0 lead. Gonzalez looked like a genius.

Coming into the game, Atlanta’s big advantages appeared to be run prevention. Atlanta’s defense turned more balls into outs than St. Louis’ defense did during the regular season. You wouldn’t know this from watching Friday’s game.

The problems started in the fourth inning. After a Carlos Beltran single, Matt Holliday scorched a ball toward third base. Chipper Jones made a nice snag and appeared on his way to starting a rally-killing double play. Jones’ throw resembled a poor alley-oop attempt, as the ball sailed over Dan Uggla’s head into right field. An Allen Craig double and Yadier Molina groundout tied the score. But the Cardinals, nor the Braves, were not done yet. David Freese hit a lazy fly ball to center field that Michael Bourn took a timid approach to; never generating pre-catch momentum by lining up the ball and making an in-motion catch. Bourn attempted to make up for his pre-catch error, but parachuted the ball harmlessly in to the plate, thereby allowing St. Louis to take the lead.   

Atlanta had a chance to strike back in the next half inning. With runners on the corners and one out, Andrelton Simmons laid down a bunt and raced toward first base. The throw clanked off Simmons and into right field, thus allowing the tying run to score. But, as became a theme throughout the game, the umpires overturned the original play by calling Simmons for interference. It was the right call, as Simmons had to be a few feet inward from the basepath. The decision to attempt a safety squeeze came from the dugout and appeared to be a questionable one at the time given the runner at third’s foot speed (Freeman) and the on-deck hitter (Medlen).

A mistake by Medlen in the fifth inning allowed the Cardinals to score another run. After getting ahead of Matt Holliday by pitching away, Medlen went for the kill on a 1-2 count with another fastball away. He overthrew the pitcher, however, and it flattened out and stayed over the plate. Holliday cranked it for a solo home run, giving the Cardinals a two-run lead heading into the second half of the game.

The Braves would commit a number of misfires in the sixth inning, too, which allowed St. Louis to score the deciding runs. David Ross got the party started by poorly receiving a 2-2 pitch to David Freese. The count would go full and Freese would hit an innocuous groundball to Dan Uggla, who would then bobble the ball before throwing it away. As if that wasn’t enough, the errant throw would hit off the netting and elude Ross on the rebound, allowing Freese to take second base. Mike Matheny sensed the importance of another run and inserted a pinch-runner before asking Daniel Descalso to bunt the substitute to third base.

Gonzalez, feeling the same way about another run, had his infield play in and brought in groundballer Chad Durbin. Durbin got a grounder and the drawn-in, sure-handed Simmons fielded the ball, or attempted to. The ball bricked off Simmons’ glove and he hurried his throw to the plate and missed the target. On the next play, the Braves would make two more mistakes. Jonny Venters, inserted to retire pinch-hitter Matt Carpenter, induced a soft grounder toward first base. Venters fielded the ball, but miscommunication with Freeman allowed the hitter to reach safely while also allowing the runner to score from second base.

The Braves would add their final run of the night in the seventh inning, and would bring Chipper Jones up as the tying run, but Mark Rzepczynski retired Jones without yielding so much as a run.

Although it sounds like a cliché, the team that executed did win on Friday night. The bad news for baseball is that the inevitable what-if game will revolve around an umpire’s discretion rather than the losing team’s execution.

·      The rhythmic motions to Jason Heyward’s stance made it seem as if he were riding a horse. Fitting, since Heyward rode his imaginary steed to the wall on a second inning fly ball from Yadier Molina. Heyward leapt at the wall and made an impressive catch, keeping the ball in the glove as it tried squirting out.

·      Many of the people in the stands, at some point in their lives, no doubt imagined themselves as Chipper Jones up in the ninth inning of a playoff game. Jones’ at-bat, unlike so many of those imagined, ended with a broken-bat grounder to second base. Jones reached thanks to an off-line throw that drew the first baseman from the bag. Speaking of Jones and endings, maybe it’s fitting that his career ends with him standing at third base.

·      The most questionable call of the night, beyond the Simmons safety squeeze, also involved the Braves. Asking Eric O’Flaherty, a lefty specialist through and through (with a seasonal line against righties of .291/.356/.402), to face the middle of the Cardinals order, which amounted to four right-handed batters, seems like a bad idea. To O’Flaherty’s credit, he overcame the odds and pitched a scoreless inning.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

19 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

BP staff member Jason Wojciechowski
BP staff

I have to disagree with my friend and colleague's description of Kozma. To my eyes, he was drifting out to left, not dashing, and could have easily made the play without outfield help, but peeled off because the left fielder takes priority on those balls.

I don't know what's right, but I wanted to mention it because I think there can be multiple interpretations of the video of the play.

This is also not to say I think the call was right. As RJ says, the spirit of the rule is to prevent cheap double plays. It would have taken quite a lot to turn a 654 from that position.

Oct 06, 2012 00:22 AM
 
craigburley

That's right Jason. It was absolutely an ordinary-effort play.

However, it came up that if the play can be made with ordinary effort, Kozma absolutely should be given an error. That he wasn't is a scorer's mistake.

Oct 06, 2012 05:44 AM
rating: 1
 
anderson721

I don't remember ever seeing an infield fly called on a ball that deep, and I know I've never seen one called that late.

Oct 06, 2012 02:45 AM
rating: 2
 
Eddie Bajek

That's because 99% of the time when an infield fly is called, you don't notice because the ball is caught.

Oct 06, 2012 05:05 AM
rating: 1
 
ScottyB

Yeah, because of the whole "ordinary effort" thing

Oct 06, 2012 09:16 AM
rating: 0
 
Ric Size

A lot of talk about the blown call, has taken the focus off how poorly the Braves played. They made 3 errors, which lead to 5 unearned runs, and left 12 men on base.

Oct 06, 2012 05:49 AM
rating: 1
 
tterry

Re ; lateness of the umps call....I have always thought that ump has to wait until the ball is close to the top of its flight in order to be sure it is a "fly ball" (subject to the infield fly rule) and not a line drive. I believe the ump here made his call soon after the ball reached the top of its flight and started down
However, I agree that the spirit of the rule is distorted when the call was made under all the circumstances present here.
But it s the ump's judgment in the last analysis. MLB was right to deny the protest

Oct 06, 2012 06:15 AM
rating: 0
 
apbadogs

The ump raised his arm to call IF when the ball HIT THE GROUND!

Oct 08, 2012 07:02 AM
rating: 0
 
kmbart

From the Official Rules of Baseball (which include comments on specific plays as seen here):

Rule 2.00 (Infield Fly) Comment: On the infield fly rule the umpire is to rule whether the ball could ordinarily have been handled by an infielder—not by some arbitrary limitation such as the grass, or the base lines. The umpire must rule also that a ball is an infield fly, even if handled by an
outfielder, if, in the umpire’s judgment, the ball could have been as easily handled by an infielder. The infield fly is in no sense to be considered an appeal play. The umpire’s judgment must govern, and the decision should be made immediately.

Two things to note - 1) an outfielder CAN make an Infield Fly catch and 2) it is a JUDGMENT call, not one that can be appealed. Is there ANYONE who doesn't believe Kozma should have been camped under that pop-up?

Oct 06, 2012 06:43 AM
rating: 0
 
SaxonB

As mentioned above though, the spirit of the rule is to prevent an easy, cheap double-plays. Kozma would have had a helluva a time with a double play from that distance and chances are all runners would have advanced safely.

Oct 06, 2012 07:23 AM
rating: 1
 
BurrRutledge

I heard the play on the radio. Didn't get to see it on television until much later. The radio description made it sound like it was a high fly ball that could have been caught by either fielder.

The call was also not made by the infield umpire, which the radio announcers pointed out Couldn't happen in a regular-season game, Since there are no outfield umpires. When I did get a chance to see the replay it was clear the umpire made that call extremely late. His hand went up about the time the shortstop pulled up short.

That's the part that bothers me - this is a judgement call that is supposed to be called 'immediately' upon the umpire's conclusion that ordinary effort of an infielder will result in an out. If he's waited for the infielder to run backwards for 45 feet before he makes that judgement, it wasn't ordinary effort.

Oct 06, 2012 08:48 AM
rating: 1
 
FredOwens

It was an awful call showing really poor judgement by the umpire. At Fenway that ball is nearly on the warning track. When a call is so silly that Atlanta fans - some of the least reactive fans I've been around - go crazy, it's a bad call for the ages. However, the Braves lost because the defense of all things let them down and the offense continued to do what it did all year long, fails to score RISP. Medlen threw a pretty good game, his mistake on the home run ball is inconsequential if the Braves deliver at even the league average with RISP and make the simple plays on defense.
Just as bad was the very late time out call that allowed Ross the second chance with two strikes that resulted in the two run homer. You simply can't make that call so late that even the man asking for time out swings. Bad umpiring in both cases
Fredi Gonzalez made two really bad choices; the suicide squeeze with Freeman who runs slower than molasses in winter in third and playing the infield so far in that it was impossible to stop the routine ground ball Durbin induced. Playing the infield in rarely works and is particularly silly against a team that makes contact. I know it's a by the book thing but someone should rip that page out of the book.
The Cards took their chances, drove in runners when they had the opportunity and played good defense. They deserved to win the game.

Oct 06, 2012 08:33 AM
rating: -2
 
hinnenra

Watch the video in slow motion. As the ump starts raising his hand, Kozma backs off from the play. Right, wrong or indifferent, it appears to me the ump's call of infield fly made Kozma believe Holliday was calling him off. If that is the case, the Bravea actually got a break from the call. Instead of first and second with two outs, they now have second and third with two outs. Why is no one mentioning in the media talking about this aspect?

Oct 06, 2012 08:38 AM
rating: 0
 
OonBoon

I completely agree. Kozma doesn't look in Holliday's direction. Holliday looks bewildered, as if he had no intention of calling Kozma off. It was dropped because of the ump's late, late call. The call I say was right, the timing not so much, and it was the Cardinals who got the worst of it.

Oct 06, 2012 09:28 AM
rating: 0
 
BurrRutledge

I agree, I had the same thought... The umps call caused him to back off. Very late call.

Hadn't thought about the implications of the runners advancing, but I still think he had a ways to backpedal before he was under that ball.

Oct 06, 2012 10:40 AM
rating: 0
 
TGisriel

I believe the infield fly rule was properly called. Kozma, using ordinary effort, was certainly in a position to catch the ball. My viewing of the play, and replays, indicated to me that the umpire called the infield fly as soon as Kozma waived his hands, indicating that he was going to catch it. That he, almost immediately, gave way to the left fielder, and because of poor communication with the left fielder the ball was not caught, does not change the rule or the call.

Oct 06, 2012 09:47 AM
rating: 0
 
Robotey

When Holliday is involved on a fly ball in a playoff game, nothing is routine. RULE j-56 in the unwritten rulebook.

Oct 06, 2012 14:10 PM
rating: 2
 
JParks

My take was that Kozma started backing off the ball before the ump threw his hand up. No way was he or Holliday looking at the umpire on that play.

Does the umpire make a verbal call as well for the infield fly rule or is it just a hand signal?

I thought the purpose of the hand signal is to inform the runners that they are on their own, it is not really a signal to the fielders.

Strange play, don't ever remember a controversy over an infield fly call before, although I'm sure there has been one.

Oct 07, 2012 11:13 AM
rating: 0
 
misterjohnny
(925)

Umpires make a verbal call "Infield fly, if fair" although not all umpires say the "if fair" part.

Oct 08, 2012 09:31 AM
rating: 0
 
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