Remember those St. Louis Cardinals? You know, the 2011 World Series champions. Those guys took advantage of a Braves collapse to sneak into the wild card spot and then went all the way. Then this year, by the grace of MLB and Bud Selig, the extra wild card was implemented or else the Cardinals don’t even make the playoffs under the old system. Since that extra spot was there, the Cards took advantage of it and snuck in to take on the Atlanta Braves in a do-or-die game. In Chipper Jones‘ farewell (see, I can spell it) the Cardinals took advantage of errors and some crazy umpiring to triumph and head into the National League Division Series. AND because of the way this year’s playoffs were crammed in, the Cards even get to host the first two games of the NLDS! I have a theory that the Cards are black magic, and how I wish the Cubs could harness this dark energy too.
This play is hilarious:
Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the next batter would have hit a grand slam to put the Braves ahead. The next batter could very much have grounded into an inning ending double play. Any number of things could have happened. But this call changed the sequence of events significantly and that’s why the Braves protested the game from that point forward, because they could have used that extra out even if they would have made that out anyway. There are several theories about why this was called and how the play unfolded as it did, including this one suggesting that Pete Kozma could have heard the umpire call infield fly and thus peeled off. We can even be objective and look at the official rule:
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 baselines, 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 baseline, 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 umpires 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 umpires 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.
Then we can look at this picture (h/t Berselius):
You can see the position of the ball upon landing indicated by the circle. That is way out of the infield. That’s an “outfield fly” by most objective measures. The stipulations of the infield fly are intact, as there were men on first and second with one away so it could have been called. However, the fact that the shortstop had to range way out of his zone and would have caught it with arguably “ordinary” effort should have negated the infield fly before the ump called it. Even if the ball was caught, the shortstop was back pedaling and the runners would have been partway off the base so they could advance if the fielder messed up, or retreat if the ball was caught. Unfortunately it is a judgment call and that’s all she wrote, even if the call was made way late and was probably incorrect. MLB did not approve the Braves’ protest, and Chipper Jones’ career is over. The Cardinals move on.
This is not to take anything from the Cardinals. They are the class of the National League with their championships and pennants and the fact that despite losing their best player in Albert Pujols, and losing their legendary manager Tony La Russa to retirement, they were still able to find the right pieces in free agency and call up enough guys from their farm system to take advantage of the extra wild card. They make their own luck. And the Cubs should strive to be as good as the Cardinals, and one day we might be even better. But for now, I think of the Cardinals as the bar that we have to reach before we can taste the sky. Well played, Mike Matheny and friends. I figure that as poorly as the Braves played, STL would’ve won anyway.
Update: Harold Reynolds has a great breakdown of the rule (which is still poorly written) and the call (which I believe now was the correct one):
Again, this was not the reason the Braves lost. But at least now MLB has a precedent with which to better clarify the rule in the rulebook.