It was supposed to be redemption for the failure of one year ago, but instead the National League Wild Card playoff heaped further misery on the Atlanta Braves, as they succumbed to the St Louis Cardinals 6-3, in the inaugural one-game event.
Along with their early exit from the 2012 postseason, the Braves were then also forced to say goodbye to their legendary third baseman, Chipper Jones, whose retirement was confirmed with the loss after 19 years of faithful service. For those who predicted the Braves would lose the game, few could have imagined the ugly scenes however after a controversial umpiring decision stymied an Atlanta 8th inning rally.
Down 6-3 with one out, rookie shortstop, Andrelton Simmons lifted a pop-flyball into shallow left field. With baserunners on first and second tagging, Cardinals shortstop, Pete Kozma tracked back into the outfield grass. Charging in from left field was Matt Holliday and in amongst the noise of 52,000 fans a communication error between the two fielders saw the ball fall safely onto the grass, a good 40 feet into the outfield. A roar went up from the crowd, only to be cut short moments later when it became clear that left field umpire, Sam Holbrook, had raised his arm to indicate that the infield-fly rule was in effect and Simmons was automatically out.
The lateness of the call and the fact the ball landed so far into the outfield enraged the crowd and the field was pelted with missiles ranging from beer bottles to hot dog wrappers. The game was suspended for 19 minutes amidst a tirade of boos while the ground crew cleaned the field. Braves manager, Fredi Gonzalez then placed the game under protest (which was later denied) and the game was able to continue.
With two outs instead of one, pinch-hitting Brian McCann was walked to load the bases, but then Michael Bourn struck out to end the inning. A further rally started with two outs in the ninth inning, including a Chipper Jones infield single in what was to be his final at-bat, but Dan Uggla grounded out to end the game and leave the Turner Field faithful with a hollow feeling of disappointment.
"It hurts," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "It hurts losing ballgames the way we did tonight." The manager’s feelings were echoed throughout the clubhouse. "The feeling is that it was a bad judgment call," Tim Hudson said. "Some guys on TV were saying that they agreed with the umpire. I really don't understand what they were watching. I don't know how they are interpreting the rule. It was a shallow fly ball to left field that got misplayed for a single. There couldn't have been a force out, much less a double play. That rule is in place to protect the runners from getting doubled off."
"I don't know if I'm sad or mad," catcher David Ross said. "I can't wrap my head around it. I can't figure out what emotion I have because we don't have another chance. We won 94 games this year and had a great season. I'm going around telling guys, 'Great season,' and I can't believe I'm telling guys that because it's over so fast."
Aside from the poor umpiring, the Braves did not help themselves. They had gone ahead in the second inning thanks to a two run home run from Ross. But three sloppy errors from Jones, Uggla and Simmons, respectively allowed the Cardinals to score four unearned runs and that would prove the difference between the teams.
Before the game began, the Braves felt their chances of winning were good. Kris Medlen took to the mound carrying a record team 23-game winning streak in games he started. The young right-hander had drawn unanimous praise over the second half of the season for the way he adapted to a starting role, having spent the first half of the year in the bullpen. Despite being placed consistently behind the eight-ball by his defence, Medlen pitched a strong 6.1 innings, the only real blemishes were an RBI double to Cardinals first baseman, Allen Craig and a solo home run to Holliday.
Opposing Medlen was Kyle Lohse, a veteran pitcher looking for his first postseason win, which he got thanks to a solid 5.2 inning effort. Medlen was tagged for the loss, ending the winning streak. Always his own harshest critic, he refused to blame the defensive errors for the defeat. "You find yourself in situations, but you know how to get out of them, and it's up to you to execute your pitches when you need to” he said. “I let those runs in, so I don't blame anybody else."
Whatever the reason for the loss, the end result is the same. The Braves’ season is over and they face a long winter dwelling on what might have been. The first ever Wild Card Playoff will be remembered for all the wrong reasons, rather than a celebration of the career of one of baseball’s favourite sons. For Chipper Jones, his playing days are over, but he will long be remembered. "I'll walk out of here knowing I brought it every day” said Jones. "It makes walking away on the final day a little bit easier."
October 5th 2012