ST. LOUIS — Thirty hours earlier, a battered yellow taxi carried a question through mid-afternoon traffic in Atlanta. Why, the driver wondered, would Major League Baseball do this?
"You play 162 games in the regular season," he asked, passing a legless woman rowing her wheelchair with a six-foot branch, "and it comes down to one game?"
The new one-game, winner-take-all wild card format of the expanded postseason baffled the man. So many of baseball's quirks and surprises, evened out over the season's five months, could rear up in such a game. This game seemed like nothing more than a crapshoot. He creaked to a stop across the street from Turner Field, where hours later the man's worry came to life as the St. Louis Cardinals survived the infield fly rule and debris and delay to end the Atlanta Braves' season.
That earned the Cardinals Sunday's matchup with the Washington Nationals at Busch Stadium in the best-of-five division series, along with lingering controversy.
"It was just a boring game," Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman deadpanned after Saturday's workout at Busch Stadium, "where nothing crazy happened."
One eighth-inning call by left field umpire Sam Holbrook –nat and the ensuing 19 minutes of rage that turned much of the field into a refuse depository – shifted attention from commissioner Bud Selig's latest gimmick to the 355 lawyer-like words of the infield fly rule. And, of course, the usually-docile Atlanta supporters who rained cans and bottles of every variety onto the field to protest the ruling.
"I never saw them get that fired up," said Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche, who played parts of four seasons in Atlanta. "It was kind of good to see."
One season sputtered out. Another jolted to life. Both teams could point to Andrelton Simmons' pop fly that came to rest between two would-be fielders in shallow left field as a critical, but not deciding, moment in a game where the winner-go-home format magnified each mistake. The cushion of a five- or seven-game series disappeared. And Cardinals manager Mike Matheny worried about late-game bullpen strategy along with how to get his players safely off the field if Atlanta supporters lost control again.
To a man, the Nationals insisted they didn't care if they faced the Braves or Cardinals. Matchups didn't matter. They watched as fans. The high drama and higher stakes attracted them.
But the game also opened the mystery of when, exactly, is an appropriate time for an umpire to call an infield fly. A full understanding of the rule is tough to find in a clubhouse.
"I don't really know the rule," Zimmerman admitted.
"I don't fully know the rule," LaRoche concurred.
"It's so hard to argue against," catcher Kurt Suzuki said, "because it's based on (the umpire's) judgement."
The rule starts: "An INFIELD FLY is a fair fly ball (not including a line drive nor an attempted bunt) which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort ..." But ultimately, the decision rests with the umpire, in this case, working the left field line as part of the expanded six-man postseason crew. LaRoche wondered if Holbrook being in a position he doesn't occupy during the regular season led to a distorted view of the play.
The "ordinary effort" bit sparked Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez's failed attempt to protest the game. Was Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma's effort "ordinary"? Was the ball hit too deep for the infield fly to be valid? Did Holbrook signal the fly "immediately" or, as it appeared, did he wait until the ball almost finished its descent?
Nationals manager Davey Johnson, in the big leagues since 1965, has seen plenty of infield flies. The call, in his view, was borderline. A bit more into left field and the possibility of a double play, the reason behind the rule, wouldn't exist.
"Tough call," Johnson said.
The call stood, after a trip to the home clubhouse to lodge the Braves' quickly-denied protest, and instead of the bases loaded with one out, two men stood on base with two out.
Zimmerman wouldn't mind the addition of controversy-sapping instant replay for the postseason, as long as it didn't further lengthen games. But replay wouldn't have changed this call, built around an umpire's interpretation. Holbrook "absolutely" believed he got it right. Doubt never entered the umpire's words.
"Anytime you have a ruling like that or a call like that, it's a judgment call," Zimmerman said. "Its been called that way a million times and not called that way a million times. It's unfortunate that it happened at that time in the game. ... To really blame the whole game on one call is kind of silly."
As silly as trying to wrap one's mind around Rule 2.00, where one man's pop up is another's infield fly. And the call, like the winner-take-all playoff, won't soon be forgotten. So, the real winner, perhaps, was MLB.
"One game and you're out. That's nerve-wracking," Suzuki said. "Maybe it's a good thing for baseball. It gets a lot of drama at the end."
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