As my Dad told me last night, “I was expecting a Wild Card Game, not a wild Cards’ game.” Major League Baseball’s first Wild Card Game, certainly lived up to the wild factor. The 94 win Atlanta Braves were facing off against the 88 game St. Louis Cardinals at Turner Field on Friday evening with a National League Divisional Series berth on the line.
Medlen was the starter of note, because the Braves had won 23 consecutive games that Medlen had started, dating back to May 29, 2010. The streak was interrupted by Tommy John surgery and he started this season in the bullpen for the Braves.
Lohse was the quieter of the pair, despite being one of the top pitchers in the National League all season. He led the Cardinals’ rotation in ERA this year. A rotation that was the fourth best in baseball. He had also never won a playoff start going into this game, having a career postseason ERA of 5.12 in 31 2/3 innings. Last year during the Cardinals’ playoff run, he allowed 11 runs in 12 2/3 innings.
The game would also be the final game for Chipper Jones. Jones, the 19 year veteran, had played all 19 years of his career with the Braves and was drafted as the Braves’ first pick out of high school with the #1 pick of the 1990 draft. The Braves were the only organization he’d known and Atlanta, the only home town he’d played for.
The controversy of the game would begin in the bottom of the second. After striking out Jones and Freddie Freeman, Kyle Lohse walked Dan Uggla. Braves catcher David Ross stepped to the plate and quickly found himself at a 1-2 count. As Lohse wound up to deliver the fourth pitch of the at bat, Ross apparently verbally called for time, and home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg called time as Lohse delivered the ball. Ross, a catcher, believing that he wasn’t going to be granted time, swung at the pitch and missed. However, since Kellogg had called time, the pitch didn’t count and what should have been an inning ending strikeout for Lohse became once again a 1-2 pitch.
Lohse delivered the pitch again, this time Ross had him timed and deposited it in the left center field stands for a two run home run, giving the Braves an early lead.
The Cardinals went quietly in the third before Carlos Beltran led off the top of the fourth with a single to right field. Medlen got Matt Holliday to ground into what should have been an inning ending double play to Jones at third, but Jones sailed the ball over the second baseman’s head and into right field. That let Beltran move to third base and Holliday reach safely.
Then up to the plate came the league’s best hitter with runners in scoring position, Allen Craig. The momentum had begun to shift, you could feel the Braves reeling momentarily. I knew the Cardinals had to strike then. Craig doubled off the left field wall, scoring Beltran and moving Holliday to third.
The Braves attempted to come back. Freeman led off the bottom of the fourth with a single. Uggla grounded out on a hit-and-run while Freeman got to second safely. David Ross singled on a bunt to third base that moved Freeman to third. Then the Braves’ shortstop Andrelton Simmons laid down a bunt to the pitcher that Lohse seemingly threw away, allowing the Braves to score two runs.
Except that home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg immediately called interference. Simmons, rather than running in the running lane to first base, ended up running in the grass to first base. Lohse’s throw hit Simmons in the helmet, which caused it to skip away. The batter was declared out and the runners returned to their bases.
The fifth inning would go quietly again as both pitchers got over their troubles and threw 1-2-3 innings.
Then in the top of the sixth, Matt Holliday ripped a line drive home run into left field to give the Cardinals a 4-2 lead in the game.
In the top of the seventh, the Braves suffered from more fielding shenanigans. David Freese grounded to Dan Uggla, who threw the ball away and allowed Freese to move up to second base. Adron Chambers came in to pinch run for Freese before Descalso sacrificed him over to third.
Freddi Gonzalez went to the mound to take Medlen out and bring in Chad Durbin to face Pete Kozma. Kozma grounded a ball to short and Simmons bobbled it and tried to throw Chambers out at home, but instead threw it away. That advanced Kozma to second base.
When Mike Matheny opted to pinch hit Matt Carpenter into the game, Gonzalez went back to his bullpen for Jonny Venters to get the lefty-lefty matchup. Carpenter didn’t seem to mind as he chopped a ground ball to first that was fielded by Venters. Except that nobody was covering first. Venters made an effort to tag Carpenter out and just missed him. Meanwhile, Kozma was playing heads up baseball as he rounded third, took a look at what was going on at first base and took off for home.
Jon Jay grounded into a double play, but the damage was already done. The Cardinals led 6-2 with just three innings left to play.
In the bottom of the seventh with a lead, Matheny hit the Mu-Bo-Mo button, bringing in his regular seventh inning guy, Edward Mujica. Mujica got Simmons to lead off the inning before pinch-hitter Jose Constanza tripled and was sacrificed in by Michael Bourn to bring the Braves within 3 runs.
After allowing a single to Martin Prado, Mujica’s night was done and Matheny went to left hander Marc Rzepczynski. After allowing a double to left field to Jason Heyward, he got Chipper Jones to ground out to escape the danger.
But little did we know that things were just starting to get wild in the Wild Card Game.
Mitchell Boggs came in to pitch the bottom of the eighth and after an 8 pitch battle with Freddie Freeman, walked him. Uggla hit into a fielder’s choice for the first out of the inning.
The hero of the game for the Braves so far, David Ross, singled again for his third hit of the game, moving Uggla to second. Then the craziness.
With the Braves’ rookie shortstop Simmons at the plate, he popped a towering fly ball into left field. The Cardinals’ rookie shortstop Kozma began backing up on the ball as left fielder Matt Holliday closed in. Kozma called the ball, but at the last minute bailed out and the ball dropped to the ground.
The Braves runners advanced into a bases loaded situation and the hometown crowd was going wild. However, everyone missed that left field umpire Sam Holbrook had called the infield fly rule in effect. The batter, Simmons, was actually out. But because the ball dropped, the runners were allowed to advance to second and third.
Fredi Gonzalez immediately ran out to argue the call. The Braves fans expressed their displeasure with the umpires, reaching a boiling point after the interference call and then this one. They threw trash onto the field, leading the umpires to pause the game and wait while the field crew cleaned up the trash. Gonzalez officially placed the game under protest as after 19 minutes, the game continued.
Rather than sticking with Mitchell Boggs, who had been cold for 19 minutes, Matheny called in Jason Motte for the four-out save. After walking Brian McCann on 5 pitches, he struck out Michael Bourn with the bases loaded and two out. The Cardinals would carry that 6-3 lead into the ninth inning.
And it wasn’t done there either. In the bottom of the ninth with two out, Chipper Jones came to the plate for what was likely his final at bat as a Major League baseball player. After receiving a standing ovation from the ground, he stepped into the box. He hit a ground ball up the middle that Daniel Descalso fielded and made a spinning jump throw to first on. The ball went just wide and forced Craig off the bag at first, allowing Jones to reach safely.
However, it appeared on replay, that Craig managed to make a second effort to get back onto the bag and that beat Jones to first. But who is going to call Chipper Jones out on that for the final out of Chipper’s career in Atlanta. Fans were already angry at them, better let him get on safely. I’m sure some Cardinals’ fans’ thoughts went back to 1985. I can’t have been the only one.
Freeman then hit a ground rule double to left-center field off of Motte that gave the Braves men on second and third with two out in the bottom of the ninth and the tying run coming to the plate in Dan Uggla. Uggla, who hit a career low 19 home runs this year after having topped 30 over the last 5 years, grounded to his Cardinals’ counterpart who made a good throw to Craig to collect the final out.
In the aftermath of the game, social media erupted with talk about the game and about the most infamous call of the game, the infield fly call. TBS, of course, made a big deal about the call taking a long time to be made. Both the booth announcers during the game and the studio crew after the game made mention that the rule book says that the call must be made immediately on an infield fly rule call. They conveniently leave out of the first part of the sentence, which basically makes it read that the umpire only has to call it immediately after he decides it’s an infield fly.
And as a response to that, Harold Reynolds on MLB Network showed an infield fly rule call in a Chicago Cubs game earlier in the 2012 season that had the same call timing as this play that we’re all talking about. Nobody deemed it controversial then.
They also mentioned that Kozma was way out in left field, but the rule makes specific note that ordinary effort doesn’t factor in distance. To anyone with eyes, that watches Kozma he backed up with ordinary effort like it was a routine pop up and called the catch. Ordinary effort depends on the player. Obviously to cover that distance would be extraordinary for most people, but with a player with good range, that’s ordinary. The umpire decided he was going to call the infield fly right before Kozma bailed on the ball. What’s the umpire going to do, tell everyone that he was just kidding?
I think there are many people who are seeing that the ball dropped and are letting that color their decision on the play. If Kozma catches that ball, it doesn’t matter if it’s an infield fly rule or not. In the end, the Cardinals gave the Braves the bases loaded with two out and the winning run at the plate in the form of their leadoff hitter. You know, the guy who is supposed to be the best guy on the team at getting on base. He struck out.
Bonnie Bernstein actually made the most interesting argument I’ve heard for not calling the infield fly on Twitter today against the call. She argued that her question was that the spirit of the infield fly rule is to protect the runners from an infielder dropping the ball intentionally and turning a double play. But that where the ball was positioned, there was no need to protect the runners because there was no threat of them being thrown out of the fielder intentionally dropped the ball.
So while the call might be correct by the rulebook, it may not have been correct by the spirit of the rule. I’ve had a run-in with that problem at least once in my baseball/softball playing career.
I think that the Braves got a little lucky that Holliday didn’t run in and catch that like he should have. I believe that Uggla was far enough off of second base that they could have doubled him up successfully. But if Holliday was coming in for the catch, would Uggla have backed up? We will never know.
In the end, the umpires giveth and they taketh away. If the umpires call this game correctly and the Braves don’t boot the ball around the infield, the game is tied 1-1 in the eighth inning. Except they didn’t. And they did.
The Braves still had the opportunity to put a dent in the lead with their leadoff hitter and they failed to get the job done. In the end, the Braves lost this game with their defense and lack of hitting rather than by a poor call or an incredible Cardinals performance. The Braves served this game up to the Cardinals on a silver platter and they managed to take advantage of it.
That won’t work in Washington.