The morning after their crushing 6-3 loss to St. Louis in the Wild Card game, Braves players and team officials were back at Turner Field on Saturday morning, the players cleaning out lockers and saying goodbyes while discussing a range of topics including the controversial infield-fly call in Friday’s game.
It was the topic du jour in baseball, the ruling by left-field umpire Sam Holbrook in the eighth inning Friday, on Andrelton Simmons’ pop-up that landed 60 feet into left field.
With the Braves trailing 6-3 and runners at first and second, Simmons’ fly ball drifted back and fell between Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday and shortstop Pete Kozma. Each had backed off at the last moment so the other could take it, but neither did.
When the ball landed, a crowd of more than 52,000 roared. The Braves and their fans figured they’d now have the bases loaded with pinch-hitter Brian McCann coming up. Finally, something had gone the way of the Braves, whose three errors had led to four unearned runs, along with a fifth run that could have been prevented.
But instead of McCann coming to bat with his .339 career bases-loaded average and nine grand slams in 109 at-bats, he came up with two outs and two runners on after the surprising call by Holbrook, who replays showed raising his right arm to signal infield-fly rule just as Kozma was peeling off his pursuit of the ball.
“My thing with Sam was, ‘Sam, this is way out here for you to be calling an infield fly. Way out here,’” Gonzalez said Saturday, recalling his argument with Holbrook on the field after the ruling. “And at the time you don’t know how far out, but it just didn’t feel right. And you look at the replays over and over and it’s like, arhgh.”
The spot where the ball landed was 225 feet from home plate, according to Baseball Info Solutions. In the past three seasons, there were six infield-fly rulings in the majors on balls that were not caught, and the longest measured at 178 feet – 47 feet less than the ball Simmons hit.
“I’ve seen [the infield-fly ruling on a ball that's] shallow, but not that far out, pretty much in left field,” said Simmons, a shortstop. “I’ve never seen that before. I don’t think anybody had seen that before.”
Many Braves fans went from cheering loudly to booing and throwing hundreds of plastic beer bottles and other garbage on the field, causing a 19-minute delay. During the delay, the Braves filed a protest, which was quickly overturned as MLB sided with Holbrook’s ruling.
“You would’ve liked to have taken a shot with the bases loaded and the McCann at the plate with one out,” Gonzalez said. “But you can’t say that play cost us the game.”
McCann walked to load the bases with two outs, and Bourn struck out to end the inning. The Braves were done. For the game, and for the year.
“It really comes down to umpire’s judgement,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said Saturday, when asked if he thought anything could be done to clarify or improve the infield-fly rule. “There’s always case studies after things happen, and usually it takes something like this for it to be studied further. I can’t remember – and I’ve been in the game 34 years – I can’t remember an infield fly rule having this big of an impact, and being talked about. So there’s a first time for everything.
“But that’s not the reason we lost the ballgame. We didn’t lose the ballgame because of that call. We lost the ballgame because we didn’t make routine plays. We had three of them that came back and bit us. That’s not indicative of the way we played all year long. We played pretty sound baseball all year long. If there was any question about our club over the course of the season, it was would we be consistent enough offensively.
“We end up with 12 hits last night. If we make plays we win the game 2-1 or 3-1. I know they end up getting more earned runs than that, because you can’t assume a double play [on Chipper Jones’ errant throw in the three-run fourth inning]. But they shouldn’t have scored.”
Wren was asked how it felt the day after losing the first-ever Wild Card game, the first postseason matchup involving a one-game, do-or-die format.
“Probably a one-word description is emptiness,” he said. “I think we’ve talked all season long that we had a real good team and had a chance to take it into the postseason and do well. How well? You never know. That you understand that’s kind of the laws of baseball. But we had a chance to do well.
“I probably went into yesterday’s postseason game as relaxed and at ease as I’ve gone into any in a long time, because I felt like we were ready to play. We had played well in September and felt like we had the right guy [Kris Medlen] on the mound. We had everything going in our direction. And then you don’t make the plays defensively in postseason, it’ll be you. And that’s what beat us.”
He said the problematic nature of the Wild Card format was discussed by general managers at their meetings last winter. The game was created after the addition this year of a second wild-card team in each league. In the past, the single wild-card team advanced directly to a best-of-five Division Series against the division winner with the best record.
“All of us at the general managers meeting when we talked about this format, it’s not a format that’s indicative of the best team,” Wren said. “When you’re playing for six months and 162 games, this is not a sport where you play 20 games. This is not a sport where you play a handful of games, and then one game is appropriate. This is a sport that’s about series, it’s about winning series. And one game is kind of a harsh reality.”
Having the two wild-card teams play a three-game series was discussed, but unless it was done in two days, with a split doubleheader the first day, it was determined that playing a series before the division series would unfairly penalize those teams that won division titles.
“Really what came down to the crux of the problem when we discussed it at the general managers meeting, you don’t want to disadvantage the division winners as well, by having them sit,” Wren said. “Because in many cases, and we’ve experienced it with the Braves over the years, where we clinched on the 20th of September and you’re now getting your team ready, and you lose that edge. Well, now all of a sudden you sit four or five days to play your first playoff game, there’s a good chance to lose your edge. So it’s a difficult fix to say the least.”