ATLANTA -- When Andrelton Simmons hit a lazy fly ball during the eighth inning of Friday night's National League Wild Card game, what at first appeared as if it would be a routine out for Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday turned out to be anything but.
When shortstop Pete Kozma moved back toward the infield after initially calling for the ball as he charged toward it, allowing it to drop between him and Holliday, a raucous standing-room-only crowd at Turner Field thought the Braves had just loaded the bases, while trailing by three runs with one out in the eighth.
When fans realized left-field umpire Sam Holbrook had made what appeared to be a late infield fly ruling, calling Simmons out and leaving runners at second and third, some of them began throwing bottles, cups and other items on the field in protest. The ugly scene created a 19-minute delay, during which the stadium's field crew cleared hundreds of items off the infield and outfield, while the Cardinals' players huddled in the shallow infield before retreating to their dugout.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez charged on the field immediately.
"I was arguing or protesting that it was not an ordinary effort," Gonzalez said. "I thought that the shortstop had to go way out there to make a play on that fly ball, and I think we've got to take account of the crowd, 50,000 people yelling, and I thought there was some miscommunication between Holliday and Kozma. I went out there and protested the game."
During the long delay, crew chief Jeff Kellogg went to the Braves' dugout to speak to Major League Baseball executive vice president Joe Torre, who was in attendance, about the protest. Before play resumed, Torre, accounting for the scheduling logistics and timing of a one-game playoff, rejected the protest in real time.
"As far as 24 hours and waiting for a written report, practically, it just didn't make sense," Torre said. "So I spoke to [Braves general manager Frank Wren and Gonzalez] and asked them what they were basing their protest on, and I ruled basically to disallow the protest based on the fact that it was umpire's judgment call. And you really can't -- not that you can't protest -- but you can't uphold a protest based on that."
The Braves officially dropped their protest once they realized Torre's feeling was that Holbrook had made a judgment call.
"I saw the shortstop go back and get underneath the ball where he would have had ordinary effort and would have caught the baseball, and that's why I called the infield fly," Holbrook said.
Kozma was approximately 90 feet onto the outfield grass when the ball dropped between him and the charging Holliday, and the umpire's arm didn't go up to indicate the infield fly rule until a moment before the ball hit the ground.
"I went back and I was under it, and I called for and just missed it," Kozma said. "I bailed at the last second. I thought [the ruling] was the right call. I am an infielder. I went back and was camped under it. I thought [the umpire] made the call. All I heard was the crowd. I just bailed at last second."
The Major League rulebook clearly states the circumstances of the infield fly 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," says Rule 2.00 in the definition of terms. "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."
A further comment on that official rule spells out the complexity of making the call: "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," it says. "The umpire must rule also that a ball is an infield fly, even if handled by an outfielder, if, in the umpire's 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 umpire's judgment must govern, and the decision should be made immediately."
Some of the Braves' players questioned whether Holbrook made a call soon enough. Others questioned whether it fell under the category of "ordinary effort." Kozma was never under the fly ball, and he moved forward at the last second because he mistakenly believed Holliday was in position to make the catch.
"I haven't seen [the infield fly rule] called where the guy wasn't camped," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "You know, normally when you're that far out, nobody's camped. But I saw the rule where it doesn't necessarily have to be an infielder, it could be an outfielder who comes in and ultimately makes the play. But you really don't see any clear indication that one of the two was camped."
But Jones did not blame the call for the loss.
"Well, ultimately I think that when we look back on this loss, we need to look at ourselves in the mirror," Jones said after the loss ended his 19-year career. "We put ourselves in that predicament, down 6-2."
While the infield fly rule is designed to protect baserunners, the Cardinals were the team that benefited from the ruling this time.
"I understand why the Braves would be frustrated," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. "We get that. But when that call is made, at that point, a couple things can happen. But we know that the ball is dead, runner is out, and runners advance at their own risk.
"But our guys would have made this a whole lot easier if we make the play, and they make that play 99 times out of a hundred. It just didn't happen that time."
After making the call, Holbrook and the rest of the umpiring crew stood in the middle of the infield attempting to stay away from the danger of the objects being thrown on the field.
"The Atlanta Braves have a strong and loyal fan base, and a small group of those fans acted in a manner that was uncharacteristic and unacceptable," Braves president John Schuerholz said. "The actions of those fans are not representative of the Atlanta Braves or Major League Baseball. We apologize to the St. Louis Cardinals and Major League Baseball."
Braves catcher David Ross was cognizant of the danger presented by the flying objects. But like many of his teammates, he understood why things became so volatile in that situation.
"It's a one-game playoff, and they know their season rides on it and they're passionate fans," Ross said. "There is no place for it in baseball. But on the same hand, I don't blame them. They were just so upset."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com.