In his first season as closer, Kimbrel had been all but unhittable. He hadn’t blown a save in three months when he faced Pujols. He blew three in September. The second came 10 days later at Miami on a walk-off homer by former Brave Omar Infante. (This was the night Chipper Jones lost a ground ball in the lights.) The third would come in the ninth inning of the final game.
The Cardinals had pulled even on the season's penultimate night. In Game No. 162, the Braves had to beat Philadelphia, which had long since clinched the East, at Turner Field to force a one-game tiebreaker with St. Louis, which was shutting out Houston behind Chris Carpenter. Kimbrel walked two — "I was overthrowing," he said — before Chase Utley's tying sacrifice fly in the ninth. The Braves lost in 13 innings, the winning run crossing on Hunter Pence's broken-bat single, the end coming when Freddie Freeman grounded into a double play. At that moment, it was the worst numerical September flop in baseball annals.
But wait! The Red Sox – who led the American League wild-card race by nine games Sept. 3 — wasted a ninth-inning lead and lost in Baltimore. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay tied its game against the Yankees on Dan Johnson's two-out homer in the ninth and won it in the 12th on Evan Longoria's clout. Rays in the playoffs! The Red Sox had cratered, too!
In the mostly silent Braves clubhouse, general manager Frank Wren watched the AL doings and said, “Coming into September, we (meaning the Red Sox and his club) had two of the four best records in baseball.”
Everywhere but here and Boston, that night was hailed as one of the greatest in baseball history. MLB took its good fortune and sought to double the drama by adding a second wild card per league — and then to have half the wild cards eliminated after one postseason game. (It sounded stupid then. It sounds stupid still.) And sure enough, when the 2012 playoff grid was set, the NL play-in matched the Braves against — wouldn’t you know it? — the Cardinals, who took their good fortune the year before and won the doggone World Series.
Chipper Jones tips his cap to the crowd as he takes the plate for the last at bat of his career in a 6-3 loss to St. Louis in the National League wild card game at Turner Field in Atlanta on Friday , Oct. 5, 2012. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.CO
Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.CO
The Braves finished six games ahead of St. Louis the year after the collapse. In grand Atlanta style, it didn’t matter. All that did was allow them to play host to the first official wild-card game in the sport’s history. Naturally, it was weird.
Catcher David Ross, starting ahead of Brian McCann, hit a two-run homer in the second to give the home side a lead. Not that anything involving the Braves and October is ever safe, but their starting pitcher Oct. 5, 2012, was Kris Medlen. Coming off Tommy John surgery, he hadn’t become a starter until the end of July. When he did, he became Greg Maddux. The Braves won all nine of Medlen’s starts. His ERA as a starter was 0.97. He went 34-2/3 innings without yielding an earned run.
So: Two-run lead, Medlen pitching. What could go wrong? Only everything. Jones, working his final big-league game, threw high and wild in the fourth inning on what should have been a double-play grounder. The Cardinals scored three runs. The Braves wouldn't lead again. They would, however, give us something to remember.
Down 6-3 in the eighth, the Braves had two on and one out. Andrelton Simmons lofted a pop-up. Shortstop Pete Kozma called for it. Then he pulled up, oddly deferring to left fielder Matt Holliday, who was observing from a respectful distance. The ball dropped. The Braves had the bases loaded with McCann set to pinch-hit. But wait again.
Sam Holbrook, the left-field umpire, invoked the infield-fly rule, though Simmons’ flare had traveled well beyond the infield. (To be fair, a ball can be out of the infield and still be ruled an infield fly.) That meant that Simmons was out. The runners couldn’t advance. Manager Fredi Gonzalez rushed to remonstrate. Turner Field patrons, by now weary of anything involving a blown lead and/or the Cardinals, took to throwing things. Some items landed near Brian Snitker, now the Braves’ manager and their third-base coach that night.
Said Snitker: “I didn’t enjoy that at all. I had a couple of bottles land at my feet. I told Danny Uggla (the runner at third), ‘I’m getting the hell out of here.’ He had a helmet on. I guess I did, too. But things were landing.”
Eighteen minutes were required to clear the field and restore some measure of order. McCann walked to load the bases. Michael Bourn struck out swinging. One inning, and one last cruel twist, remained.
With two out and nobody on, Jones came to the plate one last time. He doffed his helmet and waved to the crowd before stepping in against Jason Motte. Jones broke his bat on a 2-2 pitch, sending a two-hopper toward second baseman Daniel Descalso, who backhanded and made a leaping throw to first. Jones didn’t exactly bust it down the line, but he wound up with an infield hit when Descalso’s throw pulled Allen Craig off the bag.
Freeman hit a ground-rule double. Tying run at the plate. Was something good about to happen, something that might override previous Redbird-induced indignities? Nah. Uggla grounded to Descalso, whose throw was true. Atlanta fans seized the moment to start flinging anything they hadn’t already flung. The Braves lost 6-3 despite outhitting their opponent 12-6. They left 12 men on base. They also made three errors. Four of the Cardinals’ runs were unearned.
One year after the Epic Collapse, the Braves became the first team eliminated in the wild-card round. The beneficiary both times was St. Louis. Those two would meet again in an elimination game at SunTrust Park on Oct. 9, 2019. The Braves trailed by 10 runs before they came to bat. Only in Atlanta, folks.