LOS ANGELES – Two outs in the bottom of the ninth and the St. Louis Cardinals led by a run. Like any major leaguer worth the leather on his hand, Matt Holliday(notes) stood in left field hoping the ball would be hit to him.
Everybody, that is, except Holliday.
"It was a helpless feeling," he said later, standing at his locker fielding questions with much more aplomb than he displayed on Loney's drive.
Holliday lost the ball in the Dodger Stadium lights, unsure of its whereabouts until it struck him squarely in the groin and fell to the turf. Loney scampered to second base on the error, triggering a blur of events that resulted in the Dodgers winning 3-2 Thursday to take a 2-0 lead over the Cardinals in their National League Division Series.
It might be remembered as one of the most egregious drops in baseball history except that Holliday didn't drop the ball. Once he lost it in a bank of lights that fortuitously for the Dodgers had been turned on only two innings earlier even though there was plenty of daylight, any contact the ball might have made with that leather on his hand would have been purely accidental.
"If I see it, it hits me in the glove and the game's over," he said. "It wasn't for a lack of effort. I had it at the beginning but the ball came down into the lights and I couldn't see it. Obviously, I feel terrible."
The sentiment was shared by the rest of the Cardinals, who wasted a dominant performance by right-hander Adam Wainwright(notes). The Dodgers knocked around another Cy Young award candidate, Chris Carpenter(notes), in Game 1 and can advance to the NL Championship Series for the second year in a row with a victory Saturday in St. Louis.
Wainwright, who allowed three hits and walked one in eight innings, was understandably frustrated but wrongly blamed Holliday's error on promotional towels handed out to fans as they entered the ballpark.
"That ball got lost in 50,000 white towels shaking in front of Matt's face," Wainwright said. "It doesn't really seem fair that an opposing team should be able to allow their fans to shake white towels when there's a white baseball flying through the air. How about Dodger blue towels?"
Those towels undoubtedly will become part of Cardinals-Dodgers folklore, erroneously so. And if the Cardinals are eliminated, Holliday will forever be remembered as a goat instead of as the midseason acquisition that bolstered the lineup enough for a second-half surge to the NL Central title. He likely will still rake in more than $100 million as the premier free agent this offseason. The Yankees and Red Sox won't sour on him because of one blinding moment.
But he'll have to wear it forever. And he knows it.
"It hit my stomach," Holliday said, a region a bit north of where replays indicated the ball hit. "I was just glad it didn't get by me.
"If the lights aren't on, of course it makes a difference. I can catch a ball hit right at me."
The umpires determine when stadium lights need to be turned on, and they gave the word in the seventh inning, shortly after 5:30 p.m. PT. The bank of lights that swallowed up Loney's drive has caused other outfielders fits.
"I've seen five or six balls this year fall because of the lights," Dodgers right fielder Andre Ethier(notes) said. "This game was played at an odd time because it's the playoffs. Early on, the sun was a problem. Then it was those lights."
Dodgers left fielder Manny Ramirez(notes) was openly thankful circumstances were unkind to Holliday instead of to him. "It could have been me, of course," he said. "The ball can always get lost in the lights."
A different glaring issue pertaining to left field is dogging the Dodgers, and has for two months: the increasing ineffectiveness of Ramirez with a bat in his hands. One of the greatest postseason hitters ever, he is 1 for 8 in the series and appears overmatched by nearly every pitcher he faces. Manager Joe Torre could start Juan Pierre(notes) instead, but he probably won't do it, at least as long as the Dodgers are winning in spite of Ramirez.
Ramirez popped out meekly to center field for the second out of the ninth inning against Ryan Franklin(notes), the Cardinals' wobbly closer. Franklin unraveled after Holliday's miscue, walking Casey Blake(notes), giving up a run-scoring single to Ronnie Belliard(notes), walking Russell Martin(notes) and surrendering a walkoff single to 38-year-old pinch-hitter Mark Loretta(notes).
Torre has managed more than 4,000 games. He played in more than 2,000. He was incredulous at what he witnessed after the ball left Loney's bat.
"For us to be able to come back, especially with Ethier making the first out and then Manny making an out and all of a sudden we got a break," he said, shaking his head and smiling.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has seen as much baseball as Torre. Invariably stoic and stone-faced, La Russa had to admit this one hurt. Early in the ninth he'd caught a foul ball by Ethier in the dugout with his cap. Never in his wildest imagination would he have expected that two batters later his left fielder would miss an easier play than that.
And he wasn't about to let his team forget the loss quickly.
"It was a tough loss, very tough loss, very disappointing," La Russa said. "We're disappointed but not discouraged. There's a big difference between the two. We can win a game, so we have to wait until Saturday.
"But right now it's important to get upset about the game that got away. We did a lot to win that one and didn't win it. Turn the page too quickly and it means you don't care."
Holliday cared deeply, but if it's all the same to his manager, he'd just as soon recede from the glare of those blasted lights and put the error behind him.
"I'd love to undo what was done," he said. "It doesn't work that way."