David Freese and the St. Louis Cardinals rediscovered their postseason touch. Chipper Jones and the Braves kept throwing the ball away. And the Atlanta fans turned Turner Field into a trash heap.
They said anything could happen in baseball’s first wild-card playoff.
Boy, did it ever.
In a game protested by the Braves, Matt Holliday homered and the defending World Series champion Cardinals took advantage of three Atlanta throwing errors — the most crucial of them by the retiring Jones — to take the winner-take-all playoff 6-3 on Friday.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said shortly after the game that Major League Baseball had denied the Braves’ protest. St. Louis advanced to face Washington in the best-of-five division round, beginning Sunday.
The Braves are done for this season, the recipients of another heartbreaking loss in the playoffs.
The 40-year-old Jones is all done, period. He managed an infield hit in his final at-bat but threw away a double play ball in the fourth, which led to a three-run inning that wiped out Atlanta’s early 2-0 lead behind Kris Medlen.
But this one-and-done game will be remembered for the eighth, when a disputed call on a fly ball that dropped in short left field cost the Braves a chance at extending Jones’ career.
The Braves thought they had the bases loaded with one out after the ball dropped between two fielders, who appeared to get mixed up over who had called for it. But left-field umpire Sam Holbrook called Andrelton Simmons out under the infield fly rule — even though the ball landed at least 50 feet beyond the dirt.
When the fans realized what happened, they littered the field with beers cups, popcorn holders and other trash, leading to a 19-minute delay as the Cardinals retreated to their dugout.
The infield fly is a complicated rule, designed to prevent infielders from intentionally dropping a popup with more than one runner on base and perhaps get an extra out.
No one could ever remember it being applied like this.
When Simmons popped one into short left field, rookie shortstop Pete Kozma drifted out, throwing up his hand like he had it. Then, with left fielder Holliday lurking a few feet away, Kozma suddenly veered away and the ball fell safely.
At least that’s what the Braves thought. Just a split-second before the ball hit the grass, Holbrook threw up his right arm to signal an automatic out. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez stormed onto the field to object. When the fans spotted Simmons walking slowly off the field and a second out go up on the scoreboard, they erupted.