Why to hate baseball’s newly minted play-in game: Because you can be, as the Braves were over the course of six months, the demonstrably better team and still give a performance that fuses the three-error Brooks Conrad game of October 2010 and the Epic Collapse of September 2011. Because you can go home having sipped from the postseason cup for all of 189 minutes. Because you can put yourself in position to be rooked by those darn replacement umps.
Wait. These aren’t replacements? These are the real umpires? Is this a real sport?
Had Andrelton Simmons’ pop that dropped been allowed to stand, the Braves would have had the bases loaded and one out. When you’re trailing by three runs in the eighth inning, that’s rather different than having men on second and third with two out, which is what they wound up having. But not before the game was halted for 19 minutes as the field was cleared of the cups and bottles that had been flung, with somewhat greater accuracy than the Braves’ infielders displayed this night, by incensed patrons.
Pete Kozma, the St. Louis shortstop, was positioning himself to catch Simmons’ meek fly when he stopped running and chose to leave it to left fielder Matt Holliday. And here we note the incongruity: A shortstop deferred to an outfielder on what left-field umpire Sam Holbrook adjudged an infield fly. It was a horrible call, indefensible at the moment and more ludicrous after further video review, but this is baseball and replay can be applied only to home runs. (The Braves registered an official protest. Summarily denied.)
And thus, in its first manifestation, was baseball’s play-in game rendered a bigger joke that it appeared on paper. A team that won 94 games is gone; a team that won 88 gets to go home and play twice against the National League’s No. 1 seed. One bad performance. One lousy bit of umpiring. Season over.
“You’ve got to judge a team over the 162-game season,” said Braves’ manager Fredi Gonzalez, classy in bizarre defeat. “Anyone can have one bad call [go against them] or one bad game.”
His team was guilty on the latter charge. The team that made the fewest errors among National League teams offered up three in the span of four innings, leading to four unearned runs. Each was on a throw, each by an infielder. First Chipper Jones, playing his last game. Then Dan Uggla. Then the aforementioned Simmons, a rookie shortstop at the center of nearly everything Friday night.
The errors turned a two-run lead — and Chipper, speaking before the game, had suggested the game’s first run could be the determinant — into a 6-2 deficit after 6 1/2 innings. By then the unbeatable Kris Medlen was gone, having yielded only three hits and two earned runs but about to become a loser as a starting pitcher for the first time since 2010. That left the Braves in comeback mode, and there were moments when they appeared capable of climbing the mountain. But Chipper swung at the first pitch and grounded out in the seventh with two men in scoring position, and Michael Bourn struck out with the bases loaded to close the infamous eighth, and Uggla, representing the tying run, ended the season by grounding to second.
Said Gonzalez: “We didn’t score runs, and we didn’t handle the baseball.”
Said Chipper: “You give a good team extra outs and it ends up lightning.”
To his credit, the man who will play no more faulted himself above all. “Ultimately when we look back on this loss we have to look ourselves in the mirror,” Chipper said. “We put ourselves behind 6-2. Three errors cost us the ballgame, and mine [a fourth-inning throwaway of a cinch double play] was probably the biggest. I’m not willing to say a call cost us the ballgame.”
Because he always been a stand-up guy, you wanted it to end better. Still, in his final at-bat the great Chipper Jones managed to block out the deafening ovation and the applause from the Cardinals’ dugout — he tipped his helmet to the crowd and pointed to the visiting team — and the flashes from camera-phones and remind us why he was so great. He worked the count to 3-2 against the heat-bringing Jason Motte, and finally he put bat on ball (breaking said bat) and legged out an infield hit. Down to his and his team’s final strike, he got a hit.
We’re lucky that, as time does its work, we’ll have our memories of Chipper Jones to keep us warm. And maybe someday we can get past the strange doings on a lousy night in October 2012, when a good team played badly and got unlucky to boot, and thanks to this silly professional “system” it was eliminated. At least in the College World Series they play double elimination.
By Mark Bradley