CINCINNATI – It had the potential for a combustible mix. The Braves sent recently homer-plagued Mike Minor to start Monday’s series opener against the Reds at Great American Ball Park, sometimes referred to as Great American Small Park.
The potential was fully realized. Combustion came in the form of four solo home runs off Minor, including three in a row with two out in the fourth inning of a 4-1 series-opening Reds win.
“I don’t think it was the ballpark,” Minor said. “The pitches were up. All of them were up.”
And Mondays remained down for the Braves. They are 0-7 with a total of 12 runs scored on Mondays, while every other day of the week is fine. (They are 26-10 and the league’s highest-scoring team on days that don’t start with M.)
Previously winless Mike Leake (1-5) came in with an 8.53 home ERA and proceeded to hold the Braves to two hits and one run in eight innings.
“Well, I think one [Reds home run] may have been a legit home run in a bigger ballpark,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “Maybe the other ones are off the wall. But it’s there for both teams. We gave up three more than they did.”
The Braves had two runners on with two out in the ninth after walks by Dan Uggla and Brian McCann before left-hander Sean Marshall was brought in to face Jason Heyward, who flied out.
It was only the fourth loss in the past 15 road games for the Braves, whose NL East lead was reduced to a half-game over Washington after the Nationals beat the Phillies on Monday.
Minor fell to 2-4 while actually lowering his ERA from 7.09 to 6.96, a sign of how bad a turn his season has taken. He is 0-3 with 10.46 ERA in his past five starts, with 31 earned runs and a staggering 11 homers allowed in 26 2/3 innings. He served up multiple homers in four of those five games.
Gonzalez said he left Minor in the game through and after the homer barrage because it was a “teaching moment” to have him try to continue and finish strong after a bad inning, which he did. He retired the last seven batters he faced and allowed five hits and four walks with four strikeouts in six innings.
“I thought he did better in that fifth and sixth inning,” Gonzalez said. “His breaking ball started to have more depth to it. Hopefully he carries this on to his next start and learns from it.”
Of the career-high four homers Minor allowed, Gonzalez said: “It could have been the ballpark. [But] we didn’t hit. It was a weird game…. The old adage is that solo home runs don’t beat you. But we didn’t hit. We didn’t give him an opportunity. But I saw something in Mike today. I saw some growth in him.”
The Monday thing is probably just a coincidence. But it sure is getting odder by the week.
The Braves just beat Tampa Bay’s best pitchers, James Shields on Friday and David Price on Sunday. But on Monday, they didn’t get their second hit until the seventh inning against Leake.
“That’s why it is a crazy game,” Braves second baseman Dan Uggla said. “We didn’t have it tonight.”
Leake also started the Reds’ fourth-inning home run derby with the first homer of his career, which came on a 1-2 pitch with two out. Minor had been one strike away from getting out of the inning, with the score 1-1 and facing the pitcher, when things came unraveled.
“Yeah, all that happened with two outs,” Minor said. “I knew Leake was a good hitter. I’ve known him since college, and I knew he hit in college, too. So it wasn’t like I was taking him lightly. Obviously I was throwing him off-speed pitches. Usually you throw a pitcher a lot of fastballs. I was throwing him inside fastballs, changeups … he knew that was my best pitch, too.”
But on this night, his changeup failed him. Three of four homers were hit on changeups, including Leake’s.
“Early in the game it was a flatter pitch that didn’t have a whole lot of depth,” Minor said. “It was just on one plane and only had side-to-side movement. So it’s a lot easier for a hitter to keep their bat in the zone and hit it solid.”
Zack Cozart followed three pitches later with a home run a little longer than Leake’s, then Drew Stubbs hit his second homer of the game, estimated at 408 feet. Back-to-back-to-back jacks off Minor, each longer than the one before.
So much for that axiom about solo homers. Not when it’s four solo homers, especially four in the first four innings.
Plenty of times this season, the Braves have scoffed at a three-run deficit and stormed back to win. Not Monday. They’ve been the league’s highest scoring team on the road, but they mustered one run and two hits against Leake, who’s been one of baseball’s worst pitchers this season.
Leake had allowed 21 hits and 12 earned runs in 12 2/3 innings at home before facing the Braves, whose only hit through six innings was a first-inning homer by former Reds prospect Juan Francisco, who filled in for injured Chipper Jones. The Braves fell to 7-12 without Jones in the lineup (19-5 when he plays).
Asked if the Braves’ bad night at the plate was more about them or Leake, Uggla said, “It was both. He made good pitches. We only got two hits, so he was pretty much on. Those guys right there, when they have good stuff and they’re up here but they’ve struggled, those guys are dangerous, because his back’s up against the wall, so he’s bound to go out and do what he can do eventually.”