It didn’t take long for us to be reminded of how nutty October baseball can be. Moreso than any other sport, playoff baseball seems to have the most improbable heroes and some of the strangest occurrences.
Cubs fans will never forget what happened in Game 6 of the NLCS in 2003 when a fan reached in for a foul ball and knocked it away from Moises Alou. Orioles fans still haven’t forgotten Yankee fan Jeffrey Maier’s assist in 1996, when he reached over the wall to turn a Derek Jeter fly ball into a home run. No matter what team you root for, you remember a moment when the unthinkable happened and it ended up being the defining moment for your team’s demise.
Well, Friday, those fans were Atlanta Braves fans.
The Braves faced off with the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday to determine who would advance to play the Washington Nationals in the NLDS. Not only was it the first ever one-game, wild card playoff under the new playoff structure, but it was also Braves’ icon Chipper Jones’ last postseason. The emotion was high.
The Braves and their fans had to feel good about their chances. They had been victorious 23 straight times when Kris Medlen was on the mound and if they could just make it 24, Chipper could play on.Unfortunately, the Braves didn’t respond to the pressure. They looked tight, which led to the three throwing errors and four unearned runs they had given up before the controversial call was made.
The most unlikely candidate, David Ross, who was replacing an ailing Brian McCann, put the Braves ahead early with two-run blast. After that, they couldn’t touch Cardinals’ starter Kyle Lohse.
St. Louis only managed to get three hits off of Medlen but the Braves were not sharp in the field. An error by Chipper Jones in the fourth aided a three-run inning for the Cardinals. A Matt Holliday home run in the sixth gave St. Louis a comfortable lead at 4 – 2.
The game’s infamous incident happened in the bottom of the eighth. The Braves were at bat, trailing 6-3, with one out and runners on second and third. Andrelton Simmons hit a fly ball in to short left field. Cardinals shortstop, Pete Kozma, ran into shallow left but peeled away because he thought the left fielder had a better play on the ball. Neither player made an attempt to catch the fly ball and it fell to the ground. The runners advanced and the Braves were looking at a 6 – 4 game with runners on first and third with one out. The crowd was in a frenzy, thinking their beloved Braves were about to rally.
They didn’t see umpire Sam Holbrook signaling the infield fly rule and that the runner was out.
The scene that followed was ugly. Manager Fredi Gonzalez argued and put the game under protest. Fans littered the field with bottles, cans, and whatever else they could get their hands on, causing the players and umpires to run for cover. It was not the city’s finest moment, by any means.
After a 19-minute delay and a swift cleanup effort from the grounds crew, the Braves still had a chance to close the gap, but Michael Bourne struck out to end the inning.
The fans continued to boo and throw trash onto the field even after the final out was made. It certainly could not have been how Chipper Jones envisioned his last moments on the diamond.
The Cardinals will go on to face the Washington Nationals in a best-of-five series.
The nightcap between the Rangers and Orioles wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the NL game. The shocking occurrence here is the mystery of what has gone wrong with the Rangers and slugger Josh Hamilton.
The Orioles made easy work of the two time defending AL champs, winning 5-1. Texas looked flat, as they have for the last few weeks of the season. After losing the division on the last day to the Oakland A’s, the Rangers were heavy favorites to win the wild card game. They had their ace, Yu Darvish, on the mound and they were facing Joe Saunders. Saunders was 0-6 in Arlington and the Rangers had seen plenty of him over the years when Saunders was in Anaheim.
The Rangers had a chance to make a statement early, with runners on first and third and nobody out in the first inning and Hamilton at the plate. The statement they made was a harmless ground ball to second on a first pitch breaking ball, resulting in a double play. That was the only run they scored all game.
The Orioles played loose. They stole bases, executed their game plan, and led 2-1 when Darvish was taken out in the 7th. The O’s added three more but Hamilton, again, had a chance to make the game close in the late innings, but struck out on three pitches.
Hamilton’s free agency is looming and his performance over the last few weeks of the 2012 season might cost him his place in Texas and significant cash from potential employers.
The Orioles will go on to face the New York Yankees. Baltimore was 6-3 at Yankee Stadium this year and the two teams know each other well. It is the first time they’ve been in the playoffs since 1997.
Joe Fries is a sports writer and golf pro living in Indiana. You can follow him on Twitter @The7thFreezer.
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