ATLANTA -- Talk about a wild card.
This one was just plain wild.
They 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.
Shortly after the game, Major League Baseball executive Joe Torre said the protest was denied, citing it was an umpire's judgment call on the play.
"I talked to Fredi (Gonzalez, Braves manager) after the game and it's unusual circumstances based on a one-game playoff, 24 hours and waiting for a written report, didn't make sense, spoke to them, asked them what they were basing their protest on and I ruled basically to disallow the protest based on the fact that it was an umpire's judgment call," Torre said.
"We made it clear to them that because of the situation with the one-game playoff, it makes no sense to wait the 24 hours."
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, 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 early 2-0 lead behind Kris Medlen.
"Ultimately, I feel I'm the one to blame," Jones said. "That should have been a tailor-made double play."
But this one-and-done game will be remembered for the eighth inning, 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 dropped between two fielders, who appeared to get mixed up over who had called for it. But left-field umpire Sam Holbrook, who has 11 1/2 years of major league service and previously had worked four playoff series, 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 went up on the scoreboard, they littered the field with whatever they could get their hands on.
"It was scary at first," St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina said. "I've never seen that before."
Holbrook defended the call, even after he looked at the replay.
"Once that fielder established himself, he got ordinary effort," he said, referring to shortstop Pete Kozma calling for the ball, then veering away at the last moment as left fielder Holliday drifted in. "That's when the call was made."
Asked if he thought he made the proper ruling after seeing the replay, Holbrook replied, "Absolutely."
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 ever could remember it being applied like this.
To put Friday's controversial play into context, in the past three seasons, there were six infield flies that were not caught in the majors, according to Baseball Info Solutions, the longest measured at 178 feet.
Friday's infield fly was measured at 225 feet from home plate, according to Baseball Info Solutions.
Kozma took the blame for not making the play.
"I was under it," he said. "I should have made the play. I took my eyes off it. I was camped under it."
Jones refused to pin this loss on the umps.
"That one play didn't cost us the game. Three errors cost us the game," he said. "We just dug ourselves too big a hole."
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.
"When cans are flying past your head, yeah, a little bit," he said.
It's not the first time Holbrook was at the center of a controversial call involving the Cardinals and Braves.
In 1998, Holbrook threw Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire out of a game in front of 47,627 fans in St. Louis during the first inning for arguing a called third strike. McGwire had 54 home runs entering the game as he attempted to break Roger Maris' single-season home run record.
McGwire currently is the Cardinals' hitting coach.
The stoppage Friday only delayed the inevitable. When play finally resumed, Brian McCann walked but Michael Bourn struck out to end the threat. Dan Uggla grounded out with two aboard in the ninth to end 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.
Holliday homered in the sixth off Medlen, who had been baseball's most dominant starter over the final two months. The Braves had not lost a start by the diminutive right-hander since 2010 -- a streak of 23 games, the longest in modern baseball history.
But this is the postseason.
This is when the Cardinals shine.
St. Louis stunningly made the playoffs a year ago at the Braves' expense, ralllying from 10½ games back in the wild-card race in late August to pass Atlanta on the final day of the season. The Cardinals went on to capture the championship, winning four straight elimination games while upsetting Philadelphia, Milwaukee and, finally, Texas, with the most improbable victory over all in the World Series. They rallied from two runs down in both the ninth and 10th before David Freese's homer in the 11th to set up a Game 7 victory that almost seemed anticlimactic.
This time, Freese had the sacrifice fly that put the Cardinals ahead for good.
"We put heat on them," Matheny said. "Our guys were aggressive."
St. Louis was expected to fade after slugger Albert Pujols signed with the Angels and longtime manager Tony La Russa retired. And, indeed, the Cardinals wouldn't have made the playoffs without a change in the format, adding a second wild-card team in the each league. They finished six games behind the Braves during the regular season, only to hand them more misery in the postseason.
The Braves haven't won a playoff round since 2001. Since then, they've gone 0 for 7 -- including six decisive losses at Turner Field.
The atmosphere was electric at the start of the game, the crowd battling its way through Atlanta's notorious rush-hour traffic to fill the place before the first pitch. Among those in attendance: former President Jimmy Carter and former Braves owner Ted Turner.
The stadium got even louder when David Ross, starting at catcher in place of McCann, sent a two-run homer into the left-field seats in the second.
McCann struggled through an injury-plagued season, prompting Gonzalez to give Ross the nod. It looked like a brilliant move when the Braves struck for an early lead. Uggla walked with two out against 16-game winner Kyle Lohse, then Ross appeared to strike out to end the inning. But the hitter yelled for time just before Lohse delivered the pitch, and umpire Jeff Kellogg hopped out from behind the plate waving his arms while Ross swung and missed.
That call worked out for the Braves.
Molina dropped his head when he realized the pitch didn't count. He was really kicking himself when Lohse hung a breaking pitch right over the plate -- and Ross knocked it out of the park. In the dugout, McCann clapped and pumped his fist for his backup.
But the Cardinals had been in this position before.
Carlos Beltran led off the fourth with the first hit of the game off Medlen, a bloop single to right. Holliday followed with a hard shot to third base, and Jones made a nice backhanded scoop. The crowd cheered, expecting a double play. That turned to gasps when Jones' throw to second base sailed over the head of Uggla, winding up in right field. Instead of having no one on with two outs, Medlen and the Braves faced second and third and no outs.
The Cardinals made Atlanta pay, as they always seem to do in October. Allen Craig, the replacement at first base for Pujols, lined a double off the left-field wall, cutting Atlanta's lead to 2-1. Molina followed with a groundout that brought home another run and moved Craig over to third. He trotted home on Freese's sacrifice fly to center field.
The Braves totally fell apart in the seventh, and Freese was right in the middle of things again. He led off with a routine grounder to Uggla, who bobbled it briefly, then unnecessarily rushed his throw to first. It wasn't close, the ball ricocheting sailing behind home plate while Freese kept right on going to second. Daniel Descalso bunted him over to third, then Chad Durbin replaced Medlen.
Durbin got what he wanted from Kozma -- a grounder to the drawn-in infield. But Simmons bobbled the ball and hurriedly threw it all the way to the backstop as Freese slid across head first to make it 5-2.
Kozma took second on the miscue, and he came all the way around to score on another ball that didn't get out of the infield. Matt Carpenter's bunt down the first-base line was fielded by another new pitcher, Jonny Venters, who missed a swipe tag and, with his back turned, failed to notice that Kozma kept right on running to make it 6-2.
"We played to win the game," Molina said. "They played to lose the game."
Lohse got the win, allowing six hits and two runs in 5 2-3 innings. Medlen, who went 10-1 during the regular season, surrendered just three hits and two earned runs in 6 1-3 innings. But he gave up five runs in all, most of it none of his doing.
Jason Motte earned a save by getting the final four outs, taking over after the delay.
The Braves outhit the Cardinals 12-6 but left 10 runners on base. St. Louis left only two runners aboard. ... For the first time, the teams wore special patches on their caps commemorating the playoffs. In the past, those were only worn during the World Series. ... Lohse (16-3) and Medlen had a combined record of 26-4 during the regular season. The cumulative win percentage of .867 was the highest ever for opposing postseason starters, edging the .850 mark of California's John Candelaria (10-2) and Boston's Roger Clemens (24-4) in the 1986 AL Championship Series.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.