MLB Feature Story: Wild-card game with wild ending

I’M A PURIST. I recall the days when the team with the best record in the American League played the team with the best record in the National League for all the marbles. No division champs, no wild cards. The postseason was the World Series.

I watched the wild-card showdown in Atlanta, the first of its kind in this new era of NFL-style baseball postseason, with great curiosity.

MLB got more than it bargained for in Atlanta, and this offseason. After making excuses that no playoff system is perfect, I expect revisions to this format.

Make no mistake, St. Louis played a better game and perhaps deserved to win.

After Atlanta committed three early throwing errors that opened the door for St. Louis to take the lead, the Braves had a chance to stage a comeback in the bottom of the eighth inning. They were trailing 6-3, with one out and runners at first and second.

Andrelton Simmons stepped to the plate, setting into motion a series of events that will forever be known in the annals of baseball as the “Infield Fly Game.”

Simmons popped up to shallow left field. Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma raced back for the ball, his back to the infield, eventually turning to back pedal, seemingly camped under the ball.

What happened next can only be called a comedy of errors.

At precisely the moment Kozma, perhaps hearing the footsteps of left fielder Matt Holliday, gave up on the ball, left-field umpire Sam Holbrook signaled that the infield fly rule was in effect.

The ball dropped harmlessly between the fielders and the runners advanced. Atlanta thought they had the bases loaded with one out and were a hit away from getting back into the game.

But wait! Holbrook called the hitter out, leaving the Braves with two outs.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez came out to argue, and when the Atlanta fans realized what had happened, they voiced their displeasure, placing an exclamation point on it by littering the field with all manner of cans, cups and bottles—and anything else on which they could get their hands.

It took nearly 20 minutes to clean up the debris.

The morning after, fans and analysts alike were still trying to determine whether the infield fly rule was correctly invoked on Simmons’ fly ball.

From the rule book:

An INFIELD FLY is a fair fly ball (not including a line drive nor an attempted bunt) which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort, when first and second, or first, second and third bases are occupied, before two are out. The pitcher, catcher and any outfielder who stations himself in the infield on the play shall be considered infielders for the purpose of this rule.

When it seems apparent that a batted ball will be an Infield Fly, the umpire shall immediately declare “Infield Fly” for the benefit of the runners. If the ball is near the base lines, the umpire shall declare “Infield Fly, if Fair.”

The ball is alive and runners may advance at the risk of the ball being caught, or retouch and advance after the ball is touched, the same as on any fly ball. If the hit becomes a foul ball, it is treated the same as any foul.

If a declared Infield Fly is allowed to fall untouched to the ground and bounces foul before passing first or third base, it is a foul ball. If a declared Infield Fly falls untouched to the ground outside the base line, and bounces fair before passing first or third base, it is an Infield Fly.

Rule 2.00 (Infield Fly) Comment: On the infield fly rule the umpire is to rule whether the ball could ordinarily have been handled by an infielder—not by some arbitrary limitation such as the grass, or the base lines. The umpire must rule also that a ball is an infield fly, even if handled by an outfielder, if, in the umpire’s judgment, the ball could have been as easily handled by an infielder. The infield fly is in no sense to be considered an appeal play. The umpire’s judgment must govern, and the decision should be made immediately.

When an infield fly rule is called, runners may advance at their own risk. If on an infield fly rule, the infielder intentionally drops a fair ball, the ball remains in play despite the provisions of Rule 6.05(l). The infield fly rule takes precedence.

What took place last night could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered a routine fly ball, as “ordinary effort” did not apply, despite Kozma later taking the blame for not making the play.

The rule states, “…the umpire shall immediately declare ‘Infield Fly’ for the benefit of the runners.”

Holbrook didn’t signal infield fly rule until the ball, as replays clearly show, was 20 feet above Kozma’s head. That hardly was to the benefit of the runners, both of whom were left in limbo, halfway to the next base and left with no option to tag up had the ball been caught.

The past three seasons, six infield flies were not caught in the majors, according to Baseball Info Solutions; the longest measured at 178 feet from home plate. Last night’s infield fly was measured at 225 feet. At 225 feet from home plate, one could argue against the distance as being an infield fly—remember the rule is the infield fly rule, not the infielder fly rule.

Gonzalez filed a protest, claiming the rule was misapplied.

Major League Baseball executive Joe Torre said the protest was denied, citing it was an umpire’s judgment call on the play. Because of the one-game playoff, waiting 24 hours for a written report didn’t make sense. That judgment was not questioned in the protest, merely the application of the rule, was ignored.

Now, let’s make it clear that this call did not by itself cause the Braves to lose Friday night’s game. They had other chances, had taken an early three-run lead; and their three throwing errors allowed the Cardinals to take command of the game.

What it does do, however, is call into question the wild-card showdown format. Had this been a five-game playoff series, the Braves would still have had four games in which to win the series.

Proponents of instant replay will now ask MLB to implement instant-replay review to get the call right; although it’s not clear that review of the infield fly rule would be allowable.

During Friday night’s delay, it appeared the umpires huddled to discuss the play, but apparently, this play is not subject to being overturned by an umpire who had a better view of the play.

Frankly, I was appalled by fan behavior—throwing debris onto the playing field. But they had every right to be incensed by the call. The Braves, after playing 162 games to earn the right to play in the postseason, deserved a better fate than being eliminated because of a misapplied rule by an umpire.

I’ll say it again: the fans had every right to be incensed. However, that does not justify their actions.

No postseason format is perfect. But this format is not even reasonable.

MLB: You have a long way to go to improve the one-game wild-card showdown. By next year, let’s hope you get it closer to “right.”

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