ATLANTA — Strange things transpire on baseball fields on October.
Even by the standards of the month that creates baseball's legends and goats, what occurred Friday night under a shower of bottles and profanity and garbage at Turner Field was unusual.
The National League's best defense suddenly lost its ability to field. The much-debated yet little-understood infield fly rule triggered a near-riot. Baseball's best starting pitcher over the last two months crumbled. And, somehow, the St. Louis Cardinals emerged from the mess with a 6-3 victory in baseball's first wild card playoff game.
Having dodged hucked bottles and the Braves, the Cardinals open the best-of-five division series at 3:07 p.m. Sunday in St. Louis. That day is the 79th anniversary of the last time a Washington team played in Major League Baseball's postseason. The first game at Nationals Park is Wednesday.
But what looked like a routine pop fly to shallow left field in the eighth inning Friday by young Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons won't soon be forgotten. With two men on base and one out, the ball dropped in. But, later than usual, left field umpire Sam Holbrook signaled the infield fly rule. Simmons was out.
The decision sent red-faced Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez into a fury, along with the 52,631 in attendance. Gonzalez believed more than the "ordinary effort" dictated by baseball's rules were needed to make the play. Bottles of beer, soda, water, sports drink and liquor rained onto the field. Many spewed liquid as they flew through the air. Fans tossed boxes of popcorn and peanuts. A hat. Anything not bolted down.
The outburst delayed the game 19 minutes, as red-shirted staff collected the thousands of pieces of garbage. Fans pelted them with debris, too, from every corner and level of the ballpark. The Braves later apologized for the incident and blamed a "small group" of fans for the behavior.
Well-dressed men in expensive seats behind home plate shook their fists and screamed at the six umpires huddled near second base outside the range of the missiles. Both teams left the field. Profane chants replaced the tomahawk chop.
The extended unrest led Cardinals manager Mike Matheny to insist his players exit the field immediately after the game and commence their champagne-soaked celebration in the safety of the visitor's clubhouse.
"Our guys would've made this a whole lot easier if we had made the play," Matheny said. "They make that play 99 times out of 100."
The Braves' protest was disallowed by Joe Torre, MLB's executive vice president of operations, who attended the game. Confusion dogged the protest's timeline, with Gonzalez believing it was denied before the delay ended, Torre maintaining the issue was settled postgame and Braves general manager Frank Wren telling Torre he withdrew the protest.
"It was the umpire's judgment call," Torre said. "You can't uphold a protest based on that."
Fraught with confusion, the infield fly rule ultimately resides with the umpire's judgment. After the game, Holbrook expressed no doubt he made the correct call.
Ultimately, three errors cost the Braves, whose 86 miscues were the NL's fewest this season, more than Holbrook's call. The pivotal error came from third baseman Chipper Jones in the final game of the 40-year-old's career.
Jones grabbed a ground ball from Matt Holliday on two laces in the fourth, then threw the ball into right field instead of what should've been a routine double-play.
"It just sailed on me," Jones said, wishing he would've double-clutched to make a more accurate toss.
That is the beauty and angst of the new winner-take-all wild card game. One hundred sixty-two games came down to a series of mistakes that destroyed one season and extended another.
The Cardinals, who slipped into the final postseason berth by two games and wouldn't have qualified under the old system, took advantage of Jones' mistake to score three runs. Other baffling moments abounded, from Braves catcher David Ross appearing to strike out, home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg granting him a late time out and, on the next pitch, hitting a two-run home run.
Holliday bashed a solo home run to left field off Braves starter Kris Medlen in the sixth to extend the error-aided lead. The 26-year-old Medlen emerged as the Braves' surprise ace and the team had won his previous 23 starts, dating back to 2010. Since joining the rotation July 31, Medlen rolled up a 0.97 earned-run average and held opponents to a .191 batting average over 12 starts.
But the Cardinals, boasting the NL's top offense in a slew of categories, touched Medlen for six hits. Two came off his trademark changeup, which batters hit just .097 against this season.
"We've got a lot of games like this this season," Matheny said. "Those close games where things just don't go smoothly, I think they develop character. I think they develop perseverance."
After hard-throwing reliever Jason Motte finished off the Cardinals victory in the ninth inning, the barrage of trash resumed. As refuse flew, fans chanted, "We want Chipper!"
And the Cardinals were already making a racket in their clubhouse, alive.
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