A critical infield fly ruling went the Cardinals' way in the eighth inning, capping a night in which St. Louis rode strong pitching and shoddy Atlanta defense to a controversy-laced 6-3 victory in front of 52,631 at Turner Field. A season after overtaking the Braves in a race for the one Wild Card, the defending World Series-champion Cards, beneficiaries of the new 10-team postseason format, leave as winners in the first National League Wild Card game.
It earns the Cardinals a chance to meet the Nationals in the best-of-five Division Series, which begins Sunday in St. Louis.
"Anything can happen," Carlos Beltran said of the one-and-done format. "That shows you right there that the team that does the little things wins. Atlanta played great all year round, but when it comes to one game, you never know. Anything can happen."
And indeed it did on a night that closed the book on Chipper Jones' storied career and opened a new chapter for rookie manager Mike Matheny.
After using three Atlanta errors to build up a 6-2 lead, the Cards' typically steady late-inning relievers gave the Braves several final gasps. Edward Mujica served up a run in the seventh. An inning later, Georgia native Mitchell Boggs allowed a walk and a one-out single.
The night then turned both bizarre and unruly.
Andrelton Simmons, who had earlier been ruled out for running too far inside the baseline toward first, lifted a routine fly ball to left. Shortstop Pete Kozma drifted back, waved off left fielder Matt Holliday before inexplicably pulling off at the last second. The ball dropped, seemingly loading the bases for Atlanta.
"I went back and I was under it," Kozma later said. "I called for it and just missed it."
What Kozma and Holliday and most everyone else inside Turner Field didn't see was left-field umpire Sam Holbrook had signaled for an infield fly. By rule, that meant, catch or not, Simmons was out.
"I saw [Braves manager] Fredi [Gonzalez] coming right out and figured that it wasn't to argue that it was a hit," said Boggs, also initially unaware that a call had been made. "I figured something went our way."
That set off a vehement argument by Gonzalez, who asked for the game to be played under protest. A 19-minute delay ensued, as beer bottles and other items thrown onto the field by upset fans had to be cleared. Cardinals players spent much of the delay huddled in shallow center so as not to risk being hit.
They eventually all returned to the dugout, while Major League officials on site ruled that the protest would be denied.
Asked if he had ever seen such a scene at a baseball game, Yadier Molina later replied: "Never. Not here. Not in America. It was crazy."
As the debris cleared, the worry eventually turned to how the delay could affect Jason Motte, who had already finished his warmup session in the bullpen. Matheny turned to him anyway for the four-out save.
Motte said later that being too "geeked up" cost him against pinch-hitter Brian McCann, who walked to load the bases. Motte fell behind Michael Bourn, too, before notching the strikeout. The tying run came to the plate against him in the ninth, but Motte finished off his 28-pitch appearance with a game-ending groundout.
The celebration then began inside the Cards' clubhouse, where players and staff were not at risk of being hit with more flying debris.
"We talked and said, 'Let's finish this thing, and once we do, let's get out of town and get inside,'" Matheny said.
The victory was just St. Louis' second over Atlanta in seven head-to-head games this year. This one required a comeback, too, as David Ross' second-inning homer gave the Braves an early 2-0 lead.
Momentum shifted drastically two innings later against an Atlanta team that had won 23 straight games started by Kris Medlen.
Medlen allowed his first hit of the night to begin the fourth, and Jones' error further muddied the inning for the Braves. With a chance to turn a double play, Jones' throw to second ended up in right field. Instead of turning two, the Braves didn't get one.
"It just sailed on me," Jones said afterward. "No other way to explain it."
The Cardinals, whose tendency to play themselves out of run-scoring opportunities gave the club fits all year, wouldn't miss this one.
Allen Craig, who led the Majors with a .400 average with runners in scoring position this season, delivered an RBI double off the left-field wall. Molina's groundout scored the tying run. David Freese tallied another go-ahead postseason RBI with a sacrifice fly to give the Cards a 3-2 lead.
Just one of those runs off Medlen was earned. It was only the beginning of a series of mistakes Atlanta made.
The Braves stirred in the bottom of the fourth, putting runners on the corners with one out for eight-hole hitter Simmons. Gonzalez called for a safety squeeze that didn't translate into a run and ended with Simmons being ruled out for interference.
Lohse closed out the inning with a strikeout of Medlen and allowed just one other baserunner before being pulled with two outs in the sixth. Lance Lynn finished out that inning, leaving Lohse in line to earn the first postseason win of his career.
"It has been a season of a lot of firsts," Lohse said. "It felt great to be called upon in a big situation like that."
The Cardinals expanded their lead to two with Holliday's sixth-inning homer, his first in 59 at-bats.
A Braves defense that committed an NL-low 86 errors during the regular season then continued to unravel. Seventh-inning throwing errors by second baseman Dan Uggla and shortstop Simmons set the Cards up to score two more unearned runs.
With the win, the Cardinals improved to 3-1 in postseason series against the Braves, though this was obviously the first that lasted for only a night.
"I don't think they could have been more underdogs than they were last season, and they learned from that," Matheny said. "That either distracts you or grows you together. They believe in each other."