LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – A year ago on March 19, Mike Minor gave up four runs in six innings of a minor league game on the same day Brandon Beachy pitched five scoreless innings of one-hit ball against Detroit.
That was, for all intents and purposes, the day Minor lost the Braves No. 5 starter job.
One day shy of that anniversary, Minor all but officially secured a spot in this year’s opening day rotation with another crisp and convincing performance.
The left-hander allowed two hits and one walk with three strikeouts in five scoreless innings of a 2-2, 10-inning tie against the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday at Champion Stadium, giving him 14 scoreless innings in four Grapefruit League starts.
“He’s been great, he really has,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “We’ve seen him give us good outing after good outing. You see the command, and you see his secondary pitches getting better and better and more consistent. I think he could throw almost any pitch at any time now.
“Hopefully that will continue when we break and go north.”
Minor has given up seven hits and five walks with 10 strikeouts in 14 innings, and his confident demeanor and mound presence have been just as encouraging for teammates and Braves officials as his repertoire of pitches and ball-strike ratio.
“Today they didn’t have a lot of their big hitters in their lineup, but I was still throwing and executing pitches,” Minor said. “I feel like if you execute your pitches you’re going to get anybody out.”
The 24-year-old Tennesse native came to camp ostensibly in a three-way competition with young prospects Julio Teheran, 21, and Randall Delgado, 22. There was one permanent opening in the rotation along with a temporary fill-in job until Tim Hudson completes his rehabilitation from back surgery. The veteran is expected to be on the disabled list until around May 1.
General manager Frank Wren said early on that Minor was the incumbent and had advantages over the other two – he’s left-handed (the only Braves starter who is) and more experienced and proven at the big-league level. All things being equal, it was assumed the fifth-starter job would be his.
All things haven’t been equal. He’s outpitched those two as well as the trio of returning starters – Jair Jurrjens, Beachy and Tommy Hanson, who has made only two starts after missing more than a week with a concussion. Minor has pitched efficiently with catchers Brian McCann and backup David Ross, and on Sunday he shone again with minor leaguer J.C. Boscan behind the plate.
After a two-out double by Nick Johnson in the first inning, Minor retired the next eight batters. He gave up a Johnson walk and Wilson Betemit single in the fourth, then induced a double-play grounder by Ronny Paulino.
Minor and Boscan worked on the curveball, Minor’s third-best pitch after his fastball and changeup.
“Early on they were swinging at it when it was in the dirt,” he said. “Later on they were kind of taking it a little bit more, but then I just threw change-ups and they had to respect change-ups as well as the fastball and not lean on one pitch or the other. I felt like me and Boscan mixed it up pretty well.”
Teheran and Delgado are left to compete for the fill-in spot while Hudson is away, and Minor figures to have a permanent spot this season if he pitches anywhere near as effectively as he has in spring training. He said he still has work to do before the season begins including getting his pitch count up to 75 or 80, which he could do in six innings next time out in his next-to-last start of spring.