ATLANTA — Worried that more debris could fly out of the stands, St. Louis players scrambled off the field and launched a wild-card celebration in the safety of their clubhouse.
Players danced in a happy huddle. Champagne was sprayed. Then someone yelled “Infield fly!”
Those were words that only the Cardinals could celebrate on this night. Matt Holliday homered and St. Louis rallied from an early deficit, taking advantage of three Atlanta throwing errors — the most crucial of them by the retiring Chipper Jones — to beat Kris Medlen and the Braves 6-3 in a winner-take-all wild-card playoff Friday.
The defending World Series champion Cardinals will open their best-of-five division series against the Washington Nationals on Sunday in St. Louis. The Braves were one and done in this shortest of postseasons.
The Braves outhit the Cardinals 12-6 but stranded 10 baserunners, including three in a crazy eighth inning that included a disputed infield fly call by left field umpire Sam Holbrook. Holbrook’s call sparked immediate outrage from the sellout crowd of 52,631. As if given a go-ahead countdown to litter, fans tossed cans, bottles, cups and other debris from all corners of Turner Field. The game was halted for 19 minutes while workers cleared up the mess.
“It was crazy,” said St. Louis right-hander Kyle Lohse, who gave up two runs on six hits in 5 2-3 innings. “You hate to see the fans lose control like that. Luckily nobody got hurt.”
The loss ended the Braves’ record streak of 23 straight wins in games started by Medlen. St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said he decided during the delay if his team could close out the win, it should leave the field as quickly as possible. An on-field celebration before Braves fans would not be a good idea.
“So we made it very clear if we could finish that thing off, let’s get inside the dugout as quick as we can, and go up to the clubhouse,” Matheny said.
Braves manager Fred Gonzalez argued Holbrook’s call on the field, but after the game he also spoke strongly against the fans’ actions.
“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.”
The barrage left Holbrook fearing for his safety.
“When cans are flying past your head, yeah, a little bit,” Holbrook said.
Braves president John Schuerholz apologized for the actions of the crowd, saying a “small group of those fans acted in a manner that was uncharacteristic and unacceptable.”
The Braves played the game under protest. Major League Baseball executive Joe Torre said the protest was denied. Then Braves general manager Frank Wren withdrew the complaint. It was another heartbreaking loss in the playoffs, especially for the 40-year-old Jones. He managed an infield hit in his final at-bat but threw away a double play ball in the fourth, which led to a three-run inning that wiped out Atlanta’s 2-0 lead behind Medlen.
“Ultimately, I feel I’m the one to blame,” Jones said.
But this one-and-done game will be remembered for disputed call in the eighth.
The Braves thought they had the bases loaded with one out after the ball fell between two fielders. But Holbrook called Andrelton Simmons out under the infield fly rule — even though the ball landed at least 50 feet beyond the dirt.
Holbrook defended the call, even after he looked at the replay.
“Once that fielder established himself, he got ordinary effort,” he said, referring to shortstop Pete Kozma calling for the ball, then veering away at the last moment as left fielder Holliday drifted in. “That’s when the call was made.”
The stoppage only delayed the inevitable. When play resumed, Brian McCann walked to load the bases but Michael Bourn struck out to end the threat. Dan Uggla grounded out with two aboard in the ninth to finish it, leading to one more wave of trash throwing as the umps scurried off the field. The infield fly is a complicated rule, designed to prevent infielders from intentionally dropping a popup with more than one runner on base and perhaps get an extra out.
No one could ever remember it being applied like this. And, after past postseasons dotted by contested calls, this play will certainly lead to another slew of October cries for more instant replay.
“I was under it,” Kozma said. “I should have made the play. I took my eyes off it. I was camped under it.”
Added Matheny: “Guys could have made the whole thing a lot easier if we made the play.”
Holliday homered in the sixth off Medlen, who had been baseball’s most dominant starter over the final two months. The Braves had not lost a start by the diminutive right-hander since May 23, 2010 at Pittsburgh.
The Braves haven’t won a playoff round since 2001. Since then, they’ve gone 0 for 7 — including six decisive losses at Turner Field.
David Ross, starting in place of the slumping, ailing McCann hit a two-run homer in the second inning off Lohse. On the 1-2 pitch before the homer, Ross asked for time just before Lohse’s delivery. Ross then swung and missed, but umpire Jeff Kellog granted the timeout. That call worked out for the Braves. Ross homered on the next pitch. Carlos Beltran led off the fourth with the first hit of the game off Medlen, a bloop single to right. Holliday followed with a hard shot to third base. Jones made a nice backhanded scoop before making a wild throw over the head of Uggla, winding up in right field. The error put runners on second and third with no outs. Allen Craig lined a double off the left-field wall, cutting Atlanta’s lead to 2-1. Molina followed with a groundout that brought home another run and moved to Craig over to third. He trotted home on a sacrifice fly by David Freese, the hero of last year’s postseason.
The Braves totally fell apart in the seventh, and Freese was right in the middle of things again. He led off with a routine grounder to Uggla, who bobbled it briefly, then unnecessarily rushed his throw to first. It wasn’t close, the ball sailing off behind home plate while Freese took second. Daniel Descalso bunted pinch-runner Adron Chambers over to third, and Chad Durbin replaced Medlen.
Durbin got what he wanted from Kozma — a grounder to the drawn-in infield. But Simmons bobbled the ball and hurriedly threw it all the way to the backstop as Chambers slid across head first to make it 5-2. Kozma took second on the miscue, and he came all the way around to score on another ball that didn’t get out of the infield. Matt Carpenter’s bunt down the first-base line was fielded by the third pitcher of the inning, Jonny Venters, who missed a swipe tag and, with his back turned, failed to notice that Kozma kept right on running to make it 6-2.
“We played to win the game,” Molina said. “They played to lose the game.