Chipper Jones and the Atlanta Braves Are Going Home, but Umps Aren't to Blame
The 2012 MLB Playoffs got off to a rip-roaring, bottle-throwing start in Atlanta as baseball fans got their first look at the one-game Wild Card playoff.
In an ugly National League affair, the hometown Braves went down in flames at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals.
And the umpires, depending on whom you believe.
Although it shouldn't be, the botched infield fly rule in the bottom of the eighth inning has become the story, so let's tackle it first.
The Bravos were down 6-3, but had runners on first and second with one out when their own shortstop, Andrelton Simmons, hit a somewhat routine fly ball to shallowish left field. The Redbirds' shortstop, Pete Kozma, drifted back, settled underneath the ball and appeared to call for it before giving way at the last second to the approaching left fielder, Matt Holliday.
Except Holliday had already conceded the catch to Kozma and the ball dropped between the two fielders, who then completed their reversions to Little League by staring at each other for a confused split-second.
The ATL faithful thought they had the bases loaded with one out and the go-ahead run at the plate in a game that suddenly seemed to be there for the taking.
Of course, left-field umpire Sam Holbrook called the infield fly rule on the play, which meant Simmons was out and bases loaded with one out became runners on second and third with two outs. Unsurprisingly, the paying customers at Turner Field were displeased.
Obviously, turning trash into projectiles is unacceptable, but the Braves and their fans were understandably upset.
It was a horrible call. Awful. Indefensible.
It's true that the infield fly rule is a discretionary call left to the umpire's judgment per the official rules at MLB.com.
Nevertheless, once you parse through all that baseball legalese, there are two obvious issues with the call:
1. Ordinary effort—Kozma looked to have run almost the length of a football field to get to the ball. He didn't have to jump or dive or pursue in a dead-out sprint and it wouldn't have been a highlight-reel grab, but it wasn't "ordinary" effort because you don't ordinarily see shortstops catching fly balls in left field.
2. Intent of the rule—it's clear from the construction of the rule that the intent is to avoid deceiving baserunners in order to get cheap double plays. That's why "ordinary effort" is part of the equation, that's why there must be runners on first and second at a minimum, that's why there must be less than two outs and that's why it's the infield fly rule. In this case, even if you believe Kozma's effort was ordinary, there was no chance of a cheap double play since the ball was hit so deep.
From where I sit, I can see a reasonable argument in favor of an ordinary-effort ruling, but there's simply no way to argue the intent of the rule was honored by that call. You don't make the infield fly there for the same reason you don't make it when someone hits a line drive or attempts to bunt.
Holbrook can defend himself all he wants, but he blew it. Plain and simple.
Having said all that, anyone who tries to blame the loss on that moment or make the game entirely about Holbrook's brain cramp—like, say, by labeling it "the pop-up heard 'round the world"—is doing a disservice to the game and letting the Braves off the hook.
Had the right call been made, the Braves would've still trailed by three runs. They would've had the bases loaded with one out, which is a much better spot than the one they ultimately occupied, but it's no promise of runs.
Brian McCann might've grounded into a double play, something he did 15 times in the regular season (tied for 15th most in the NL), just as he might've cleared the bases.
More importantly, the Atlanta Braves made three errors and went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position. Those trio of errors led to four unearned runs for the Redbirds. Some quick math will reveal that a tally of the earned runs scored by each teams favors Atlanta.
As for all these woe-is-Larry-Wayne lamenters so distraught about Chipper Jones' final game ending under a cloud of controversy, they'd be wise to check the box score.
The retiring future Hall-of-Famer authored the biggest E of the ball game, which set up St. Louis' first scoring opportunity of the game in the fourth inning. It was also Mr. Jones who grounded out to end the seventh inning with runners on second and third in a 6-3 game.
Or they could just ask the man himself (via Mark Bowman at MLB.com):
"[T]hree errors cost us the ballgame, mine probably being the biggest. Did [Holbrook's ruling]...cost us one run, possibly more? Yes. But I'm not willing to sit here and say that that call cost us the ballgame."
This is not a case where the fading star played brilliantly only to have rightful victory ripped from his grasp.
Jones, the Bravos and their fans have every right to be unhappy about the umpire's call because it was a brutal one, and losing in the postseason is already a bitter pill even without officiating shenanigans.
But when all is said and done, the responsibility for the loss sits squarely in the Atlanta clubhouse and that should their focus.
Because it's been a common theme in the Atlanta Braves' most recent trips to the playoffs.
And you know the old saying about those who ignore history.
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