ATLANTA (AP) — 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.
MLB executive Joe Torre said the protest was denied. St. Louis advanced to face Washington in the best-of-five division round, beginning Sunday at Busch Stadium.
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.
"Ultimately, I feel I'm the one to blame," Jones said. "That should have been a tailor-made double play."
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 fell between two fielders, who got 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 had 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.
"It was scary at first," St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina said. "I've never seen that before."
Holbrook and umpiring supervisor Charlie Reliford defended the call.
"Once that fielder established himself, he got ordinary effort," Holbrook said, referring to shortstop Pete Kozma calling for the ball, before he veered away at the last moment. "That's when the call was made."
Asked if he thought he made the proper ruling after seeing the replay, Holbrook replied, "Absolutely."
Braves president John Schuerholz apologized for the actions of the crowd, saying a "small group of those fans acted in a manner that was uncharacteristic and unacceptable." The barrage left Holbrook fearing for his safety.
"When cans are flying past your head, yeah, a little bit," he said.
The stoppage only delayed the inevitable. When play finally resumed, Brian McCann walked but Michael Bourn struck out to end the threat. Dan Uggla grounded out with two aboard in the ninth to end it, leading to one more wave of trash throwing as the umps scurried off the field — probably feeling a lot like those replacement NFL refs who caught so much grief.
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. And, after past postseasons dotted by contested calls, this play will certainly lead to another slew of October cries for more instant replay.
When Simmons popped it up, Kozma drifted into the outfield, throwing up his hand like he had it. Then, with left fielder Holliday lurking a few feet away, Kozma suddenly turned 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.
The Cardinals fled to the safety of their dugout, while the Holbrook and the rest of the six-man umpiring crew gathered in the middle of the field, out of throwing range.
Then again, this is what some fans feared about a one-game playoff — a disputed call could determine a team's fate for an entire season. Even with two extra umpires added for postseason games.
Jones refused to pin this loss on the umps.
"That one play didn't cost us the game. Three errors cost us the game," he said. "We just dug ourselves too big a hole."
Holliday homered in the sixth off Kris Medlen, who had been baseball's most dominant starter over the final two months. The Braves had not lost a start by the diminutive right-hander since 2010 — a streak of 23 games, the longest in modern baseball history.
But this is the postseason.
This is when the Cardinals shine.
St. Louis stunningly made the playoffs a year ago at the Braves' expense, ralllying from 10½ games back in the wild-card race in late August to pass Atlanta on the final day of the season. The Cardinals went on to capture the championship, winning four straight elimination games while upsetting Philadelphia, Milwaukee and, finally, Texas, with the most improbable victory over all in the World Series. They rallied from two runs down in both the ninth and 10th before Freese's homer in the 11th to set up a Game 7 victory that almost seemed anticlimactic.
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