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.