What had been a magical year for Chipper Jones and the Braves reverted to postseason heartache Friday. Kris Medlen, the pitcher who couldn’t lose, lost. And to cap their disappointing night, a Braves rally in the eighth inning was thwarted by a questionable infield-fly ruling.
The Braves made three errors, none more costly than Jones’ errant throw in the three-run fourth inning of 6-3 loss to St. Louis in the first National League Wild Card game before an overflow crowd at Turner Field.
The Cardinals advanced to a Division Series against Washington that starts Sunday, while the Braves were eliminated from the playoffs and left to stew about making so many mistakes in their biggest game of the year. And to wonder what might have been if not for that umpire’s call in the eighth.
“I’m not willing to say that call cost us the ballgame,” said Jones, who went 1-for-5 in the last game of his storied career, the hit an infield single in the ninth inning. “Our three errors cost us the ballgame, mine being the biggest.”
The Braves trailed 6-3 and had runners at first and second with one out in the eighth inning when Andrelton Simmons hit a pop fly into left field. Shortstop Pete Kozma ran out for it but backed off at the last second. The ball fell between Kozma and left fielder Matt Holliday, and a crowd of 52,631 roared, assuming the bases would be full with one out and Brian McCann on deck to pinch-hit.
McCann, who has a .339 career average and nine grand slams in 109 at-bats with the bases loaded.
Only the bases wouldn’t be loaded, because left-field umpire Sam Holbrook called Simmons out on an infield-fly ruling, an unusual call for a ball that landed as far into the outfield as Simmons’ pop-up, which fell about 50 feet past the back edge of the infield dirt.
“I was stunned,” Simmons said. “I couldn’t understand the call. I’ve seen it made shallow, but not that deep [in the outfield], pretty much in left field. I don’t think anybody has seen that one before.”
Manager Fredi Gonzalez argued vehemently with umpires near third base, and fans littered the field with hundreds of plastic bottles and other garbage, causing a 19-minute delay, during which Gonzalez filed an official protest.
“I thought the shortstop had to go way out there to make a play,” Gonzalez said. “[Joe Torre] came back and told me they were going to go with what was called on the field.”
Infield-fly rulings are not reviewable under baseball’s instant-replay rules, and Torre, Major League Baseball’s vice president of baseball operations, upheld the ruling. Normally the protest would be in written form and decided upon in 24 hours, but since it was a one-game playoff Torre made the call right away.
“I ruled to disallow the protest based on the fact it’s a judgment call,” Torre said.
Cardinals reliever Jason Motte replaced Mitchell Boggs during the delay and walked McCann to load the bases before striking out Michael Bourn to end the inning. The Braves left 12 runners on base and went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position, continuing their trend of woeful work in that area during the past two months.
It was the 16th loss in the past 21 home postseason games for the Braves, who went one-and-done in their first trip to the postseason since 2010 and their second in seven seasons. They lost their past six postseason series, and now they’ve also lost the first single-game Wild Card playoff.
Catcher David Ross hit a two-run homer to give the Braves a 2-0 lead in the second inning. It was the fourth homer in his past 20 at-bats for Ross, who started because McCann has struggled with a shoulder injury.
Medlen was charged with five runs (three earned) in 6-1/3 innings as the Cardinals became the first team to beat the Braves in Medlen’s past 24 starts. Not that it was his fault – he gave up three hits and no walks, and two of three Cardinals runs in the fourth inning were unearned, and the Braves had a potential tying run erased by Simmons’ baserunning mistake in the bottom of the fourth.
Jones’ farewell tour of a final season had often been referred to as a storybook ending to his Hall of Famer’s career, as Jones had come through with so many dramatic hits that one Braves broadcaster said the season couldn’t have been scripted better in Hollywood.
But things went awry and the story took a cruel turn Friday, when Jones’ throwing error was part of a shoddy fielding display by a Braves defense that had the fewest errors (86) and best fielding percentage in the National League during the regular season.
Jones threw wide of second base on a potential double-play grounder with none out in the fourth, and two of three runs in the inning were unearned. Simmons and second baseman Dan Uggla also made errors.
“The guys who made the errors are pretty sure-handed,” Gonzalez said. “I’m sure we were excited…. We just didn’t do what we normally do, and it hurt us…. It huts losing a ballgame the way we did tonight.”
The Cardinals scored two unearned runs in the seventh inning after errors by Uggla and Simmons.
“When you have six runs on six hits…” Jones said of the Cardinals’ output. “I don’t know how many of them were earned runs. As far as I’m concerned, the only one they should have scored was the home run.”
Matt Holliday’s fourth-inning solo homer off Medlen put the Cardinals ahead 4-2.
“It sucks to go out like that,” Uggla said. “We had an opportunity late in the game to get back in the game. Who knows what might have happened? … For this to be Chipper’s last game, that’s a shame. We had opportunities. But we didn’t take care of the baseball. It stings to lose the way we did.”
Trailing 3-2 in the fourth, the Braves put themselves in position to tie or possibly take the lead, after Freddie Freeman hit a leadoff single and Ross surprised the Cardinals with a bunt to the left side. He hustled to turn it into a hit, diving across first base to beat the throw and put runners on the corners with one out.
Simmons was up next and bunted on the first pitch. He didn’t make solid contact and the ball dribbled just in front of the plate, where Molina picked it up and threw to first base, the ball skipped off the top of Simmons’ batting helmet and sailed into foul territory, allowing Freeman to score easily and putting Ross in scoring position. Or so it appeared.
The crowd erupted in cheers, but only for a moment, until the realization that home-plate umpire Jeff Kellogg was signaling something, and it wasn’t anything the Braves and their fans wanted to see. The umpire ruled – correctly, as replays showed — that Simmons had veered inside the baseline while running to first base. He was called for interference and the runners were sent back.
Gonzalez said he’d called for a safety squeeze because of the Braves’ recent scoring problems. Freeman wasn’t running at any point until after the ball caromed off Simmons’ helmet into foul territory, but Gonzalez said if the bunt had been struck harder and gotten past the pitcher Freeman would have scored.
“I didn’t execute,” Simmons said. “I had chances to help my team win tonight, and I didn’t do it.”
The last time the Braves lost a game started by Medlen was at Pittsburgh on May 23, 2010.
“We didn’t play well today,” Medlen said. “Obviously the [infield fly] call is magnified by the situation. If we make plays hear, if I make pitches, it’s a different game. It’s easy to point fingers. Was it a bad call? I’ll leave you guys to decide that. I just think we could have put ourselves in a better situation.”
Since moving to the starting rotation on July 31 Medlen was phenomenal, going 9-0 with an 0.97 ERA and allowing more than one run in only two games and a total of nine earned runs in 83-2/3 innings.
The Braves won 94 games during the regular season, including 17 of 26 in September. They had pushed aside the stigma of a 10-20 collapse at the end of the 2011 season that kept them out of the playoffs and allowed St. Louis to overtake Atlanta on the final night of the regular season when the Braves lost to the Phillies in 13 innings.
But after losing five of six games against the Braves during the regular season, the Cardinals won Friday when it mattered most, and again they’ll keep playing while the Braves pack for the offseason.