Buck Showalter and the Baltimore Orioles will get another chance to overtake the New York Yankees, and the Cardinals beat the Braves 6-3 in a disputed wild-card playoff Friday.
The surprising O's have already beaten some big odds, getting past the two-time defending AL champion Texas Rangers and their Japanese ace, Yu Darvish, in the win-or-go-home wild-card playoff.
Joe Saunders pitched effectively into the sixth inning at a place where he had never won, Adam Jones delivered the tiebreaking sacrifice fly and the Orioles, in the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, eliminated the Rangers 5-1 Friday night.
"With our team it's just a bunch of guys that raised the bar and wouldn't give in and still haven't. Now they get a chance to win to roll the dice, and there's a lot of good card players in there," said Showalter, their manager.
The Orioles advanced to play the East champion Yankees, the AL's top seed — the teams split 18 games this season. The best-of-five division series starts Sunday at Camden Yards.
The upstart Orioles spent the whole second half chasing New York, never passing them and falling just short in a neck-and-neck race for the division title.
Turns out, the Yankees haven't brushed off these Birds just yet.
"Real proud of everybody. Tacking on runs were big, knew they were going to run at you," Showalter said. "But just a real proud moment for us."
"Our guys approached it and we talked about it being sudden life instead of sudden death, and we played that way. You've got to seize the opportunity. We don't get many," he said.
After twice coming with a strike of winning last year's World Series, this season is over that quickly for the Rangers, who were in first place for a majors-high 178 days this season. Texas loaded the bases with two outs in the ninth before David Murphy flied out to end it.
"We just didn't get it done," manager Ron Washington said.
The Rangers lost the AL West crown on the final day of the regular season, after being swept in three games at Oakland for a stretch of nine losses their last 13 games.
"I'm not stunned, I was right there watching it," Washington said.
Their worst slump of the season came at the wrong time for Texas, which a week ago had a four-game division lead with six games to play. Because of that, they couldn't avoid the majors' new winner-take-all postseason openers, and then couldn't get past their Orioles with their top pitcher on the mound.
"To be honest with you I never thought anything like this would happen," Washington said.
For the Rangers, they're headed into their longest offseason in three years.
Cardinals Win, Crowd Revolts
Chipper Jones played his final game Friday, in a wild card playoff Friday against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Atlanta fans turned Turner Field into a trash heap after a disputed infield fly. And the Cardinals did what they always seem to do in October: celebrated another postseason triumph.
Matt Holliday homered and the Cardinals rallied from an early deficit, taking advantage of three Atlanta throwing errors — the most crucial of them by the retiring Jones — to beat the Braves 6-3 in a winner-take-all wild-card playoff Friday.
In the eighth inning, there was more crazy throwing, this time by an irate crowd that littered the field to protest an umpiring decision that went against the Braves. The Cardinals fled for cover, the Braves protested and the game was halted for 19 minutes while workers cleared up all the beer cups, popcorn holders and other debris.
St. Louis manager Mike Matheny was asked if he'd ever seen anything like it.
"Not in the United States," he said.
Major League Baseball executive Joe Torre said the protest was denied. St. Louis advanced to face Washington in the best-of-five division round, beginning Sunday at Busch Stadium.
The Braves are done for this season, the recipients of another heartbreaking loss in the playoffs.
The 40-year-old Jones is all done, period. He managed an infield hit in his final at-bat but threw away a double play ball in the fourth, which led to a three-run inning that wiped out Atlanta's 2-0 lead behind Kris Medlen.
"Ultimately, I feel I'm the one to blame," Jones said.
But this one-and-done game will be remembered for the eighth, when a disputed call on a fly ball that dropped in short left field cost the Braves a chance at extending Jones' career.
The Braves thought they had the bases loaded with one out after the ball fell between two fielders. But left-field umpire Sam Holbrook called Andrelton Simmons out under the infield fly rule — even though the ball landed at least 50 feet beyond the dirt. When the sellout crowd of 52,631 realized what had happened, and a second out go up on the scoreboard, they littered the field with whatever they could get their hands on.
Braves president John Schuerholz apologized for the actions of the crowd, saying a "small group of those fans acted in a manner that was uncharacteristic and unacceptable." The barrage left Holbrook fearing for his safety.
The stoppage only delayed the inevitable. When play resumed, Brian McCann walked to load the bases but Michael Bourn struck out to end the threat. Dan Uggla grounded out with two aboard in the ninth to finish it, leading to one more wave of trash throwing as the umps scurried off the field probably feeling a lot like those replacement NFL refs who caught so much grief.
The infield fly is a complicated rule, designed to prevent infielders from intentionally dropping a popup with more than one runner on base and perhaps get an extra out.
No one could ever remember it being applied like this. And, after past postseasons dotted by contested calls, this play will certainly lead to another slew of October cries for more instant replay.
"I was under it," Kozma said. "I should have made the play. I took my eyes off it. I was camped under it."
This is what some fans feared about a one-game playoff — a disputed call determining a team's fate for an entire season, even with two extra umpires added for postseason games.