Disputed call nearly causes riot at wild-card game

Andrelton Simmons lifted a pop fly into shallow left field. Not

a hard-hit ball, by any means, but at least 50 feet beyond the

infield.

St. Louis shortstop Pete Kozma drifted back, throwing up his

hand in that universal baseball gesture, ”I’ve got it.” Only one

problem. Right before the ball came down, the rookie veered out of

the way, apparently thinking left fielder Matt Holliday was going

to take it.

The ball dropped harmlessly in the grass. The crowd roared,

thinking the Atlanta Braves had loaded the bases with one out. Only

one problem. Standing nearby, umpire Sam Holbrook had thrown up his

right arm, signaling Simmons was out.

This grab was made by the infield fly rule.

The first wild-card playoff game in baseball history turned out

to be just plain wild Friday, thanks to a complicated rule that has

long been part of baseball, even if many people – even hard-core

fans – don’t know exactly what it is. The disputed call led to a

protest by the Braves – which was quickly denied – and an ugly

display as fans littered the field with debris, causing a 19-minute

delay.

That only delayed the inevitable for the Braves. The Cardinals

moved on to the divisional series against Washington with a 6-3

victory in baseball’s new one-game, winner-take-all playoff

round.

”You never want to see something get violent like that,” said

Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, who played his final game.

”But when you’ve got (what is essentially) a Game 7 and your whole

season is on the line … things like that are going to

happen.”

What, exactly, did happen?

The infield fly rule gives umpires the discretion to call an

automatic out on a popup with more than one runner on base, largely

to prevent the team in the field from intentionally letting the

ball drop so they can get an extra out, since the runners can’t

drift too far away from the bag for fear of getting doubled off

after the catch.

”The infield fly rule is to protect the runners, really,”

Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez said.

This time, it cost the Braves.

At issue was whether Kozma had established his position to make

the catch, and whether it should have been made under any

circumstances on a popup that far beyond the infield.

”I thought we have a legit beef,” Gonzalez said.

Joe Torre, who played and managed for both the Braves and the

Cardinals, was on hand as the executive vice president of baseball

operations. He turned down the protest, ruling it was a judgment

call by the umpires.

”Not that you can’t protest,” Torre said. ”But you can’t

uphold a protest based on that.”

Besides, both Torre and Holbrook thought it was the right

call.

”It’s all judged on what the fielder does,” said the umpire,

who was stationed down the left-field line as part of the expanded

six-man crew that is used in the playoffs. ”Once that fielder

establishes himself and he has ordinary effort on the ball, that’s

when the call is made. So it wouldn’t matter whether it was from

third base or on the line out there. It’s all based on what the

fielder does. That’s what I went on, and that’s what I read.”

The Braves saw the play differently, of course.

”I thought the shortstop had to go way out there to make a play

on that fly ball, and I think we’ve got to take into account the

crowd – 50,000 people yelling – and I thought there was some

miscommunication between Holliday and Kozma,” Gonzalez said. ”I

thought we were going to catch a break there.”

No one was pleased about the way the crowd reacted after the

call. Braves president John Schuerholz issued an apology to Major

League Baseball and the Cardinals, blaming a small group of fans

who ”acted in a manner that was uncharacteristic and

unacceptable.”

As the Cardinals celebrated another playoff triumph in the

clubhouse, someone screamed, ”Infield fly!”

”I understand that the Braves are upset by what happened,”

manager Mike Matheny said. But, he added, ”The umpires were out

there. It was the right call.”

Besides, the umpires had nothing to do with Atlanta’s three

throwing errors, which allowed the Cardinals to score four unearned

runs. Without the defensive miscues by the NL’s top fielding team,

that call in the eighth would have been an afterthought, not one

that nearly caused a riot.

”Ultimately, when we look back on this loss, we need to look at

ourselves in the mirror,” said Jones, whose errant throw in the

fourth led to three runs for the Cardinals. ”Three errors cost us

the ballgame, mine probably being the biggest. Did (the infield fly

rule) cost us one out? Did it cost us one run, possibly more? Yes.

But I’m not willing to sit here and say that call cost us the

ballgame.”

On Twitter, outfielder Jason Heyward said: ”When you don’t have

anything positive to say it’s best to not speak,” then thanked

Braves fans for their support this season.

Braves starting pitcher Kris Medlen tweeted: ”Can’t point

fingers at anyone but ourselves. Didn’t bring our A game as a team

and the cards capitalized.”

The play will certainly lead to a clamor for expanded use of

instant replay to deal with an epidemic of disputed postseason

calls in recent years – especially with the new one-and-done

format.

If nothing else, there were plenty of comparisons to the NFL’s

much-maligned replacement refs.

”This was an exciting game,” Torre said. ”I’m sorry about the

controversy. It’s certainly not something we ever plan on.”

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at

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