ATLANTA — 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 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.
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 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.
That 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.
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.
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 like — a disputed call could determine a team’s fate for an entire season.
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. So does Freese, the MVP of last year’s World Series and NL championship series.
St. Louis stunningly made the playoffs a year ago at the Braves’ expense, ralllying from 10 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 were down to their final strike in Game 6 against the Rangers before Freese tied with game with a two-run triple. They rallied from two down again in the 10th, then won it on Freese’s homer in the 11th to set up a Game 7 victory that almost seemed anticlimatic.
St. Louis was expected to fade after slugger Albert Pujols signed with the Angels and longtime manager Tony La Russa retired. And, indeed, the Cardinals wouldn’t have made the playoffs without a change in the format, adding a second wild-card team in the each league. They finished six games behind the Braves during the regular season, only to hand them more misery in the postseason.
The Braves haven’t won a playoff round since 2001. Since then, they’ve gone 0 for 7 — including six decisive losses at Turner Field.
The atmosphere was electric at the start of the game, a crowd of 52,631 battling its way through Atlanta’s notorious rush-hour traffic to fill the place before the first pitch. Among those in attendance: former President Jimmy Carter and former Braves owner Ted Turner.
The stadium got even louder when David Ross, starting at catcher in place of McCann, sent a two-run homer into the left-field seats in the second.
McCann struggled through an injury plagued season, prompting Gonzalez to give Ross the nod. It looked like a brilliant move when the Braves struck for an early lead. Uggla walked with two out against 16-game winner Kyle Lohse, then Ross appeared to strike out to end the inning. But the hitter yelled for time just before Lohse delivered the pitch, and umpire Jeff Kellog hopped out from behind the plate waving his arms while Ross swung and missed.
That call worked out for the Braves.
Catcher Yolina Molina dropped his head when he realized the pitch didn’t count. He was really kicking himself when Lohse hung a breaking pitch right over the plate — and Ross knocked it out of the park. In the dugout, McCann clapped and pumped his fist for his backup.
But the Cardinals have been in this position before.
Carlos Beltran led off the fourth with the first hit of the game off Medlen, a bloop single to right. Holliday followed with a hard shot to third base, and Jones made a nice backhanded scoop. The crowd cheered, expecting a double play. That turned to gasps when Jones’ throw to second base sailed over the head of Uggla, winding up in right field. Instead of having no one on with two outs, Medlen and the Braves faced second and third and no outs.
The Cardinals made Atlanta pay, as they always seem to do in October. Allen Craig, the replacement at first base for Pujols, lined a double off the left-field wall, cutting Atlanta’s lead to 2-1. Molina followed with a groundout that brought home another run and moved to Craig over to third. He trotted home on Freese’s sacrifice fly to center field.
The Braves totally fell apart in the seventh, and Freese was right in the middle of things again. He led off with a routine grounder to Uggla, who bobbled it briefly, then unnecessarily rushed his throw to first. It wasn’t close, the ball ricocheting sailing behind home plate while Freese kept right on going to second. Daniel Descalso bunted him over to third, then Chad Durbin replaced Medlen.
Durbin got what he wanted from Kozma — a grounder to the drawn-in infield. But Simmons bobbled the ball and hurriedly threw it all the way to the backstop as Freese slid across head first to make it 5-2. Kozma took second on the miscue, and he came all the way around to score on another ball that didn’t get out of the infield. Matt Carpenter’s bunt down the first-base line was fielded by another new pitcher, Jonny Venters, who missed a swipe tag and, with his back turned, failed to notice that Kozma kept right on running to make it 6-2.