By TED SILLANPAA
Umpire Sam Holbrook made a mistake Friday, but the Braves made so many more that it’s hard to pin their NL wild-card loss on him.
Holbrook invoked the infield fly rule in the eighth inning, with the Braves trying to rally from a 6-3 deficit. Andrelton Simmons’ fly ball to short left field dropped safely, but Simmons was already out after Holbrook judged the fly ball covered by the infield fly rule. Instead of a fluke hit that loaded the bases loaded, the misplayed fly ball was simply an out. Braves fans littered the field with bottles and other trash. Once play resumed, the Braves went down quietly.
The Braves had already committed three errors that accounted for four unearned runs. That’s what cost Atlanta the chance to advance to meet the Washington Nationals in the National League Division Series beginning Sunday.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez played the game under protest after Holbrook’s call, but the protest won’t be upheld because the umpire didn’t misinterpret the infield fly rule — he simply misjudged that a fly ball to short left field was actually a simple pop up that Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma should’ve handled with ease.
The infield fly rule is intended to prevent infielders from intentionally dropping pop flies to create easy double plays in very specific situations covered by the baseball rule book. The ball can be hit to an infielder making the play in the outfield and still be an infield fly. The rule book reads:
“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.”
Kozma had to turn his back to home plate and range well into left field to even get to the pop up. It wasn’t necessarily an extraordinary effort, but it was far from an easy play on a routine pop. Kozma was under the fly ball, but pulled away and it dropped safely when he yielded to charging left fielder Matt Holliday.
Holbrook invoked the infield fly rule once Kozma called Holliday off and was ready, apparently, to make the catch. Holbrook raised his hand to signal an infield fly as explained in the rule book:
“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 … “
Holbrook was wrong to consider the pop fly an ordinary or routine play for shortstop Kozma. Further, there was clearly no way that the Cardinals could have benefited from letting the ball drop fairly in left field. The umpire’s judgment being in error isn’t something subject to an official protest. Gonzalez couldn’t file an official protest over a close play at first base or a called third strike either — both are judgment calls.
The Braves blew the game because they couldn’t catch the ball or throw it straight. Their fans threw trash in a classless display well after the game was lost.