MLB Playoffs: Road Teams Advance On Wild-Card Friday

The first-ever wild-card Friday for the MLB playoffs went down yesterday and the road teams held sway, as St. Louis beat Atlanta and Baltimore ousted Texas, thus earning their spots in the Division Series round that begins today. The talk in the media right now is about the disputed infield fly in Atlanta, and we’ll get that further down. But let’s start by briefly looking at the keys to the wins by the Cards & Orioles…

St. Louis 6 Atlanta 3: The Cardinals were opportunistic, while the Braves kicked the ball around and couldn’t get a key hit to save their lives—or in this case, their season. Kris Medlen pitched well enough to win for Atlanta and was staked to a 2-zip lead, but a huge error in the fourth inning by Chipper Jones, playing his final game, cut the lead to 2-1 and set up St. Loo with runners on second and third. In a situation the Braves would fail in most of the night, St. Louis got consecutive productive outs from Yadier Molina and David Freese to bring both runs home.

A Matt Holliday home run and a couple more Atlanta errors stretched it to 6-2, but now it was St. Louis’ time to start melting down. Setup man Mitchell Boggs never looked comfortable in the eighth, and there were runners on first and second with one out and the lead cut to 6-3. Then St. Louis shortstop Pete Kozma had a miscommunication with Holliday on ball at least sixty feet into left field and it fell. Only it was ruled an infield fly. The Cards were bailed out, and closer Jason Motte got out of the inning and then finished the game after Atlanta again got two on with two out. St. Louis now moves into a Division Series matchup with Washington that will begin on the banks of the Mississippi River on Sunday.

Baltimore 5 Texas 1: The Rangers had men on first and third with nobody out in the first inning. Even though Baltimore had scored first, the bottom half of the frame had the feel of what even those of us how picked the Birds were watching for—the quick strike by Texas. Only Josh Hamilton hit into a room service 4-6-3 double play, and even though the game was tied, Baltimore starter Joe Saunders dodged the bullet. It set a tone the rest of the night. Texas hit into two more double plays. Hamilton, playing possibly his final game as a Ranger went 0-for-4, wasting two-hit nights from Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus in front of him.

Saunders worked into the sixth inning and the Oriole bullpen took over from there, with great work from former Texas setup man Darren O’Day. Baltimore got the lead in the sixth and eventually pulled away with a mix of key hits and productive outs. Closer Jim Johnson made things a little interesting in the ninth, allowing Texas to load the bases with two outs and bringing David Murphy to the plate as the tying run. But Murphy hit a harmless fly ball to left. Baltimore’s going to the Division Series to play New York. Texas goes into a very long offseason. The two-time defending AL champs just lost four straight to the two Cinderella stories of 2012 in Oakland and Baltimore—a win in just one would have put them in the Division Series, either as AL West champ or wild-card winner. Hamilton has the look of someone looking to get out of town. We’ll have to see how the Texas front office responds to this meltdown.

Now, let’s double back to the National League game and focus on the infield fly. This was clearly an atrocious call—as in NFL replacement ref kind of bad. To be an infield fly, a ball has to require ordinary effort and its purpose—ironically in this case—is to protect the offense, so infielders can’t allow a ball to intentionally drop and turn a double play, or replace a fast baserunner with a  slow one. Neither situation applied here.

While the pop fly hit is certainly one you expect to turned into an out, the mere fact it was a situation where Holliday and Kozma had to decide whose ball it was eliminates that rationale. And while there’s no rule saying an infield fly can’t happen in the outfield grass, the fact it was sixty feet deep means a double play was not realistic.

Furthermore, there’s no reason to consider the miscommunication some huge shock—watch enough baseball games, you see it happen on either side of the outfield more than enough times every year. Finally, if you happened to see the play, just ask yourself this—of all the similar pop flies you’ve watched as a baseball fan, how often have you seen the rule applied that way? It’s a first for me.

So did the call cost Atlanta the game? We touched on the Braves’ self-induced mistakes above, so obviously they have to look in the mirror. But the eighth inning, even prior to this play, had the feel of the Cardinals being ready to do their own meltdown and they were bailed out of it. The only thing I could really give St. Louis fans is this—maybe this call can be a small down payment for Don Denkinger in the 1985 World Series. A small down payment.

The Division Series matchups of Oakland-Detroit and Cincinnati-San Francisco begin tonight at 6 PM ET on TBS with a doubleheader. By the end of the morning, TheSportsNotebook will have previews of both up by the end of the morning, and then look for previews of St. Louis-Washington & Baltimore-NY Yanks, which start on Sunday, to go up later on tonight.