Only this time, Atlanta was knocked out with the help of what will be remembered as one of the most disputed infield fly calls in baseball history.
Trailing by three runs, the Braves would have had the bases loaded with one out in the eighth inning. Instead they had runners on second and third with two outs, didn’t score again and lost 6-3 Friday night in baseball’s first, one-and-done, wild-card playoff game.
Just like that, the focus shifted from Chipper Jones’ impending retirement and the end of Kris Medlen’s winning streak to a call that led to a 19-minute delay caused by enraged fans throwing debris and a protest by Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez.
“Ultimately, I think that when we look back on this loss, we need to look at ourselves in the mirror,” Jones said. “We put ourselves in that predicament, down 6-2. You know, that call right there is kind of a gray area. I don’t know. But I’m not willing to say that that particular call cost us the ballgame. Ultimately, three errors cost us the ballgame, mine probably being the biggest.”
Jones leaves with just one World Series title, in 1995.
“Today, my heart is broken,” he said. “Not for me, my heart is broken for my teammates and my coaching staff, and all these fans that have been so great to us this year.”
Attention was on Andrelton Simmons’ fly ball into shallow left field, which fell between shortstop Pete Kozma and left fielder Matt Holliday, sparking the furor. Just before the ball dropped, left field umpire Sam Holbrook raised his arm to signal an infield fly, meaning Simmons was out.
The call was later than is usual on an infield fly, a rule designed to prevent fielders from deliberately letting balls fall in attempts for a double play. This ball landed at least 50 feet beyond the infield.
Gonzalez ran onto the field and argued the call with Holbrook and other members of the umpire crew.
Holbrook, crew chief Jeff Kellogg and umpire supervisor Charlie Reliford defended the call as coming on a play in which Kozma could make the play with “ordinary effort.”
Ordinary? At least 50 feet from the infield?
“Well, it’s a judgment,” Reliford said in a postgame news conference that included Major League Baseball executive vice president Joe Torre, a former manager of both the Braves and Cardinals.
“I think as you watch that tape, the guy was not only under it and clearly waving that he had it, I think he had reasonably stopped his momentum, and he was under it and it was clearly the correct call,” Reliford said.
Asked about the timing of the call, Reliford said an infield fly call should not be made before the ball begins its descent.
Holbrook said he “absolutely” thought he made the right call after watching a replay.
“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,” Holbrook said.
Torre said he told Braves general manager Frank Wren and Gonzalez the protest “just didn’t make sense” due to the lack of time before the division series begins Sunday.
“I spoke to them, asked them what they were basing their protest on, and I ruled basically to disallow the protest based on the fact that it was umpire’s judgment call,” Torre said.
Torre said he was informed during the news conference that Wren dropped the protest.
Gonzalez scolded Braves fans for littering the field and putting players and umpires in danger.
“I think we have very passionate fans here in Atlanta, and I think I’m a little disappointed with the reaction of throwing bottles and beer cans and you name it,” Gonzalez said. “For me, that’s uncalled for.
“I understand the disappointment. But we can’t do that. As Atlanta Braves and people from Georgia, it doesn’t look good, and I’m a little disappointed in our fans from that point. You get people injured out there.”
It was the same type of ending as last year, but different.
Last season, the Braves led St. Louis by 10½ games in the wild-card race before play on Aug. 26 and still were up by 8 games on the morning of Sept. 6. Atlanta went 9-18 in September, ended with a five-game losing streak and finished a game behind the Cardinals, who went on to win the World Series.
This year, with a second wild card added, the Braves went 94-68 and the Cardinals 88-74, setting up the wild-card matchup in the expanded postseason.
Atlanta then played one of its worst games of the year, blowing a two-run lead, making three errors that led to four unearned runs and going 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position. The Braves had the fewest errors in the NL during the regular season.
One of the errors was by Jones, whose bad throw on a potential double-play grounder helped allow the Cardinals to score three runs in the third and go ahead for good. Second baseman Dan Uggla and shortstop Andrelton Simmons also made throwing errors in the seventh, helping the Cardinals add two runs.
The 40-year-old Jones was 1-for-5, reaching on an infield single in the ninth and ending his career stranded at third base when Uggla hit a game-ending groundout. Jones tipped his helmet before his final at-bat.
“I walk out of here knowing that I brought it every single day,” Jones said. “When you know that, it makes it easier to walk away.”
Even after the controversial call, Atlanta had a chance in the eighth. The Cardinals brought in closer Jason Motte, who loaded the bases with a walk to pinch-hitter Brian McCann before striking out Michael Bourn on a 3-2 pitch.
Atlanta had won a record 23 straight starts by Medlen, who was 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts this season. He had not lost as a starter since May 23, 2010, at Pittsburgh. In this one he allowed five runs — two earned — and three hits in 6 1/3 innings.
David Ross’ two-run homer put the Braves ahead in the second, but after Jones’ error the Cardinals went ahead on an RBI double by World Series star Allen Craig, Yadier Molina’s run-scoring groundout and David Freese’s sacrifice fly. Holliday homered in the sixth to make it 4-2.
After Uggla’s error on Freese’s leadoff grounder in the seventh, Simmons made his bad throw on a grounder by rookie Pete Kozma and Matt Carpenter hit a run-scoring infield single to the pitcher.
Bourn’s RBI grounder in the seventh was the only other run the Braves could muster. Atlanta sent the tying run to the plate in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
And now the Braves have all winter to think about another season with a sour ending.