The Atlanta Braves have a storied history, but the last three seasons have ended on as sour of a note as possible. With the Braves’ 6-3 loss to the Cardinals last night, their promising season has abruptly finished before a playoff series. The worst part of these endings is that the Braves beat themselves, whether it was poor defense or horrible clutch hitting.
Last night, things got off to a great start after Kyle Lohse decided to throw a changeup to David Ross after making him look bad on three straight fastballs. That changeup ended up in the left-field seats for a two-run homer to give the Braves an early 2-0 lead. Kris Medlen was cruising, allowing only one baserunner the first time through the order.
The third inning started well as Michael Bourn led off with a single, but he never moved off first that inning, a sign of things to come. The defensive struggles first popped up in the fourth, as Chipper Jones threw a probable double play ball into right field. That was followed by an Allen Craig double plus a groundout and sacrifice fly to score three runs, of which maybe one should have scored.
The bottom of the fourth inning featured a Ross bunt hit, and then a very bad decision. With Ross on first and Freddie Freeman on third with one out, Andrelton Simmons laid down a safety squeeze, then runs inside the baseline to interfere with the throw. Runner’s interference was the correct call, but the bigger question is why he was bunting. With a slow runner on third, the bunt essentially turns into a sacrifice, and Medlen up with two outs is not a favorable situation. Fredi Gonzalez said he called it, but it’s possible he could be covering for Simmons, though that may be giving him too much credit.
In the sixth, Medlen leaked a 1-2 fastball over the middle of the plate to Matt Holliday, quickly making it a 4-2 St. Louis lead. The Cardinals chase Medlen in the seventh, which sees them plate two runs without getting the ball out of the infield. Dan Uggla made a two-base error to lead off the inning, which was followed by a sacrifice bunt. With a runner on third with one out, Pete Kozma hit a routine grounder to Simmons, who booted it then threw the ball well to the first base side of home plate. With Kozma on second, pinch-hitter Matt Carpenter hit a tapper between the mound and first base. Freeman was playing back, so reliever Chad Durbin tries to scoop and tag Carpenter, but misses. Kozma does not slow down around third, and Durbin can’t stop his momentum to make a throw, allowing the second run to score.
The Braves got a spark from a very unlikely source, as Jose Constanza hit a one-out triple to right-center field. Michael Bourn could not sustain the inning, grounding out to score Constanza, but lowered the win expectancy for the Braves. After Martin Prado and Jason Heyward get back into scoring position, Chipper grounded out to end the inning down three runs. Eric O’Flaherty got through the eighth with a Yadier Molina double play, and the insanity was about to ensue…
With runners on first and second and one out, Simmons hit the infamous pop-up to short left field. The infield fly ruling was probably incorrect, though I can see why it was called, as Kozma was seemingly camped under the ball. It was a big play in the game, but it was not the reason the inning was a failure. Brian McCann walked in his pinch-hit appearance, then Jason Motte blows two 97 MPH fastballs down the middle past Bourn to end the inning without a run scored.
The ninth inning also included a bit of wackiness. After two quick outs, Chipper shattered his bat on a flare to second base. Daniel Descalso, normally dependable defensively, throws the ball wide of first for the error, as Craig may or may not have got his foot back in time. Freeman then smoked a double to left-center to get Uggla up as the tying run, but a routine groundball to second base ended the season.
The infield fly controversy, and the subsequent littering of the field, was the biggest story, but clutch hitting and defense decided the game. The only two positive plate appearances with RISP for the Braves were Ross’ bunt hit that didn’t score anyone and McCann’s somewhat-intentional walk in the eighth. Also, three errors by the defense essentially gave the Cardinals the win. Chipper’s error cost the Braves two or three runs, while Uggla and Simmons gave away two more runs.
Despite last year’s lack of clutch hitting and 2010’s defensive issues, this year takes the cake. The Braves have been on the wrong end of this wild-card shuffling. They would have had a shot at the true playoffs last year if this system was in place, while they would have easily been in the NLDS this season with their 94 wins. After going through last night, it seems apparent that a one-game play-in should not have such ramifications unless the two teams are tied after 162 games. The Braves won six more games than the Cardinals this year, but one game just determined the Cardinals will have a chance to win it all and not the Braves. This was a one-year experiment, and it’s possible, but not probable, that this will be the only season with this system in effect.