The feeling I have today could be aptly characterized as a hangover. Not the kind of hangover you get the morning after enjoying a few too many adult beverages. No, this is more like the hangover you might experience if you were to wake up face down in a pool of your own bodily fluids, after being drugged, beaten, robbed and dumped half-naked in a dark alley the night before.
A hangover, like the popular movie of the same name, best describes the bewilderment I experienced this morning as I tried to piece together what in the name of all that is holy just happened last night.
What’s that you ask? Why yes, I did attend the first ever circus stunt MLB Wild Card game at Turner Field! Good guess!
Deciding a 162-game season with a 1-game “play in” makes even more sense to me now than it did on Opening Day! Hooray, MLB execs!
Before anyone hurls a sour grapes accusation in my direction, you should know that I’ve been quite consistent on this matter.
A while back, the fine folks at the National Basketball Association determined (rightly) that a 5-game series was too short to decide an 82-game season, so they expanded the first round of the NBA Playoffs to 7 games. I’ve been critical of Major League Baseball for years for not following suit. But not only did MLB decline to expand the Divisional Series to 7 games, it apparently decided a 5-game series wasn’t short enough to adjudicate a 162-game season.
I’ve hated the idea of a single-elimination Wild Card game from the word “go”.
Nevertheless, the very first Wild Card contest happened to feature my team and it happened to take place right here in Atlanta, so I showed up to cheer on the Braves and see Chipper Jones play the hot corner once more.
I was prepared for the possibility that the Braves’ season could end Friday as it, of course, did. I knew I would be deeply disappointed if the Braves were eliminated, partly because of my disdain for the 1-game play-in and partly because it’s always difficult to see your team’s season end too early, regardless of the circumstances. Still, I was–at least to a certain degree–ready to accept the outcome of Friday evening’s contest. Or at least, I thought I was.
Losing an elimination game hurts. Losing it the way the Braves lost it is something else all together.
As the Braves took the field in the top of the 4th inning, all was right with the world. Atlanta had jumped out to an early 2-0 lead two innings earlier on a David Ross homerun…
And Braves starter Kris Medlen appeared to be in command, even after Carlos Beltran turned in the first Cardinals hit of the evening, a single to center field. A tailor-made double play ball off the bat of Matt Holliday was scooped up by third baseman Chipper Jones, and in that moment it seemed inevitable that the Cardinals’ only hit of the game to that point was about to be erased.
But then… it happened. Chipper’s throw sailed beyond the reach of second baseman Dan Uggla and skipped into right-center field. The ballgame turned on that play.
Now instead of a two outs–bases empty scenario, the Cardinals had something cooking with runners on the corners and nobody out. And it’s possible that the young Braves starting pitcher, making his first ever postseason appearance, might have been rattled just a bit. Atlanta’s lead was promptly wiped out on an Allen Craig double, and then St. Louis claimed a 3-2 lead on a sac fly by David Freese.
From there, things only got worse. A series of Braves errors handed the Cardinals three more runs.
Such gifts should have been accompanied by Hallmark cards. You know… the kind that play music when you open them. For the tune, I think I would have gone with Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt. “I Hurt myself today… to see if I still feel.”
The Braves reclaimed one of those runs to make it 6-3 in the 7th inning, after a Jose Constanza triple and a Michael Bourn RBI ground out.
But then things went from ugly … to interesting … to uglier than ever.
In the bottom of the 8th inning, a Freddie Freeman walk and a David Ross single brought the potential tying run to the plate in the person of Andrelton Simmons. After working the count full, Simmons skied a pop-fly into straight away left field. The ball ultimately landed 225 feet from home plate between Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma and left fielder Matt Holliday. Braves fans (and every player on the field) logically assumed that the Braves had loaded the bases with one out, bringing the go-ahead run to the dish. Not so.
Despite Simmons’ pop-fly literally traveling more than 2/3 of the way to the left field wall, the shortstop gave chase and, well… this happened:
Did the call adhere to the rulebook definition? I think not, but we’ll let you decide. Text of infield fly rule
MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds argued after the game that this kind of call and application of the rule is not uncommon. There may be some truth to that, but then again, rarely–if ever–is the infield fly rule invoke that far into the outfield.
FROM ESPN.COM: “To put Friday’s controversial play into context, in the past three seasons, there were six infield flies that were not caught in the majors, according to Baseball Info Solutions, the longest measured at 178 feet.”
So Friday night’s infield fly ruling was nearly twice as far into the outfield grass as the farthest such play recorded within the past three years. Is there a way to argue “ordinary effort” with an infielder back-peddling 225 feet from home plate?
The fact of the matter is that it was an inexcusably horrible application of the rule. Even if you believe LF umpire Sam Holbrook and the rest of the crew can be excused, the league cannot.
The picture below was taken from the spot where the ball landed on the controversial play. Does it not seem as though the application of the INFIELD fly rule needs to be addressed?
Picture courtesy of @ZackKleinWSB.
The same reciting of the rule’s text that has been used to defend Friday night’s calamitous call could be used to explain such a ruling anywhere on the field. If an infielder chased a ball all the way to the warning track, the same justification could used to invoke the infield fly rule.
This, I think, is where common sense should come into play.
As MLB Braves beat writer Mark Bowman put it: If you argue it was correct by “the letter of the law” you ignore that the call defied the purpose of the rule. The infield fly rule is in place to protect against deceiving base runners. Any ump can memorize the rule. A good one knows when to apply it.
Mr. Bowman is exactly right. The rule was created to protect the offense from a defensive player intentionally allowing the ball to drop in order to turn an easy double or triple play. In this case, the rule was applied when no (force) double-play was remotely possible, and this ruling clearly penalized the offensive team, rather than protecting it.
It cannot be said that the infield-fly call cost the Braves the victory. Even if the call had gone their way, Atlanta may very well have lost the game anyway. But a golden opportunity to tie the game or reclaim the lead was taken way from the Braves on that play. We’ll never know what might have happened.
The Cardinals built their lead by capitalizing on the Braves’ mistakes. When Atlanta finally had a chance to cash in on a Cardinals miscue and jump right back into the game, that opportunity was largely snuffed out by the infield fly ruling. The Braves can blame only themselves for the deficit they faced in the 8th inning. But a BIG chance to come from behind was wiped way with one shake of Sam Holbrook’s fist.
See also the MLB.com video breakdown of Holbrook’s call below.
For the Cardinals I will say that they played better baseball Friday evening than did the Braves, and they deserved their victory.
For the Braves, I contend that the team deserved every opportunity to see their 8th inning rally effort through. And ultimately, baseball’s 4th best team deserved more than a mere 9 innings to determine its own fate.
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