If this was to be Mike Minor’s last start in the majors for a while, the Braves left-hander seemed determined to leave a lasting impression. Maybe even change some minds.
Perhaps he did, pitching 7-1/3 strong innings against the New York Yankees in probably the best start of his career.
But what will be remembered most about Tuesday night was the shocking eighth inning, when Alex Rodriguez hit a grand slam off Braves reliever Jonny Venters and Nick Swisher hit a two-run homer off Cory Gearrin, erasing the Braves’ four-run lead and lifting the Yankees to a 6-4 win before a large and divided – and pretty well stunned — crowd at Turner Field.
It had “worst loss of the season” written all over it.
“I think so, for a lot of different reasons,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose Braves lost for the first time in 29 games when leading after six innings. “I think it was a tough one for all of us, including myself. Minor was outstanding. He really was good, and then that eighth inning we couldn’t get an out there when we needed to.”
Rodriguez blistered a full-count pitch to the left-field bleachers for his 23rd grand slam, tying Yankees great Lou Gehrig for the major league career lead. It was the first grand slam allowed in 193 career appearances for Venters, who faced four batters and failed to get an out.
“I have no excuses today,” Venters said. “I felt great mechanically. Felt great physically. Just got behind some hitters, walked a guy, and threw a pitch right down the middle 3-2 to one of the best players in the game. There’s no excuses. Mike threw the ball really well tonight and it’s a shame to waste that start. He looked really good.
“I feel bad. I let my team down. I didn’t do my job.”
Venters (3-3) gave up three hits including the A-Rod slam followed by a Robinson Cano single, after which he was replaced. He left the field to plenty of boos and rookie Gearrin entered to try to keep it at 4-all. Veteran lefty Eric O’Flaherty had a sore pitching elbow and was unavailable, Gonzalez revealed after the game.
The second pitch thrown by Gearrin was driven over the right-field fence by Swisher and the Yankees had a two-run lead on the way to their 15th win in 19 games.
“You’ve got to flush it,” Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said of dealing with the defeat. “Every day is a new opportunity, it’s a new game. When you start dwelling on the last couple of days or yesterday, that’s how you get yourself into bad funks. We let an opportunity slip away tonight, but it’s probably not going to be the last one in the course of the year. That’s part of being a professional, you’ve got to come to work every day and do your job.
“And we did our job for eight-ninths of the game tonight. Unfortunately the one-ninth that we didn’t take care of cost us the game.”
It was a remarkable reversal of fortunes for the Braves, so swift and so thoroughly demoralizing.
Before things came unraveled, the Braves were poised to beat Yankees ace CC Sabathia and even the series.
Matt Diaz hit a three-run double in the first inning and Minor took care of things from there into the eighth, allowing just five hits and one walk in 7-1/3 innings and facing only two batters over the minimum in the second through seventh innings.
“Even though I pitched well it doesn’t make me feel that great,” Minor said. “Even though I pitched well, I still want the team to win. But it’s something to work off of and hopefully carry into the next start.”
He left with a the Braves ahead 4-0 and a runner on first with one out in the eighth.
“Far and away his best outing in the big leagues,” Jones said. “He was dominant. I hope he can use that start tonight to continue on in his growing process.”
Minor threw 68 strikes in 100 pitches, and Gonzalez said he was going to give him one baserunner in the eighth. When Derek Jeter hit a one-out single, Gonzalez brought in Venters.
“He did a terrific job,” Gonzalez said of Minor. “He gave us a hell of an opportunity to win and he deserved to go back out there in the eighth inning and try to get through the eighth. I don’t think he had a chance to go a complete game but he had an opportunity to go out there and go hitter to hitter.
“And we had the right guys set up in the eighth inning, with the left-hander and with Jonny.”
But instead of watching the once nearly unhittable Venters lock down Yankees batters with his sinker and get two outs so the Braves could turn it over to closer Craig Kimbrel, the Braves saw Venters implode on the way to Atlanta’s third consecutive loss since a six-game winning streak.
“No, I wasn’t surprised,” Minor said of being pulled in the eighth. “We have a lot of guys in the bullpen that can take on that role and pick me up out there. I was approaching 100 pitches. That’s just what happens. I wouldn’t say I was fatigued, but I have all the confidence in the world that those guys in the bullpen will pick me up out there.
“I still felt good. But that’s not my call. And I’ll never question that call.”
Venters was charged with four runs, three hits and a walk. He had six consecutive scoreless appearances before Tuesday, but in his past 20 games he’s 1-3 with a 7.04 ERA, .382 opponents’ average and two blown saves. He’s allowed 26 hits, four homers and 14 runs (12 earned) in 15-1/3 innings in that stretch.
“I’ve been feeling better every time I’ve been out there,” Venters said. “Today’s unfortunate. The ball’s down for the most part; I know it was out of the zone, but that’s a good indication for me, that I’m doing a little better.”
Curtis Granderson greeted Venters with a groundball single through the left side, and Mark Teixeira drew a walk to load the bases. Venters’ first two pitches to Rodriguez were in the dirt, and Rodriguez took another ball for a 3-and-0 count.
After taking a strike, he fouled off two more pitches before punishing a 93-mph sinker. The only question after it left his bat was whether the ball would crash into the top part of the wall or clear it.
It cleared it.
“I just couldn’t make an adjustment to make a good pitch,” Venters said. “I fell behind right there and I didn’t want to walk him. Maybe looking back I should have made a conscious effort to not leave that ball over the plate. I mean, I wasn’t trying to leave it over the plate, but maybe a walk right there is not terrible, with a lefty on deck and one of the best players who ever played the game hitting. But it is what it is. I made a bad pitch and he crushed it.”
In the late innings of close games, opponents are 27-for-74 (.365) with two homers against Venters this season, after hitting .159 with no homers in 245 at-bats against him in those situations in 2011.
“There’s not a guy in this room that doesn’t have all the confidence in the world when he comes in,” Braves second baseman Dan Uggla said. “He’s had a bad run. It’s been hard for him to be consistent. But his stuff is still as good as ever, and just have to get that confidence back in him, get back in the strike zone and just be him. I’m sure he’s doing everything he can do get back on track.”
Minor’s chance for his first win since April 19 evaporated. He was charged with one run, after Jeter scored on the grand slam. The left-hander gave the Braves something to think about before their pending decision.
Kris Medlen was sent from the Braves’ bullpen to Triple-A Gwinnett just over two weeks ago to get “stretched out” as a starter, because the Braves wanted to replace one of the two inconsistent young pitchers at the back of the rotation, rookie Randall Delgado or Minor. Medlen made the third of his three scheduled starts for Gwinnett on Tuesday, allowing three runs, six hits and four walks in six innings.
Before Tuesday night’s game, Gonzalez said it wasn’t a given that Medlen would move into the major league rotation after his third start at Gwinnett. He also gave no indication of which pitcher Medlen was more likely to replace if he did bump one from the rotation.
After the game, Gonzalez said team officials would discuss the situation Wednesday, and seemed to leave open the possibility of Medlen returning to the bullpen.
Minor was asked if he’d felt any extra incentive to pitch well Tuesday with Medlen pitching at Gwinnett.
“No, I didn’t even know he was pitching [Tuesday],” he said. “I actually don’t even think about that, because the only thing I can control is when I go out there, and I’m not going to put extra pressure on myself. No, I really didn’t think about that. If that’s what they were doing, I can’t stop them anyway…
“They’ve seen me when I’ve pitched well and they know what I have. It’s just a matter of if I’m going to be consistent enough this year to stay up here.”
Before Tuesday, many observers predicted the odd man out would be Minor, who held the Marlins to one run and four hits in five innings of an 8-2 win Thursday, but before that went 0-3 with a 9.08 ERA in his previous seven starts. He had lasted five innings or fewer in five of his past six starts before Tuesday, when Minor took his game to a whole different level in every respect.
The pitcher who’d been hurt badly by home runs – 14 allowed in his previous eight starts – faced a Yankees team that’s hit more homers than any other major league team, including 32 during its past 18 games. They didn’t hit one Tuesday until Minor was out of the game.
The Braves staked Minor to a 3-0 lead in the first inning. Michael Bourn led off with a single — the fourth time he’s done that in the past five games — to extend his hitting streak to 12 games. One out later Brian McCann bounced a double over the center-field fence and Bourn, who would’ve otherwise scored, was required to go back to third.
Uggla drew his 43rd walk (third-most in the majors) to load the bases for Diaz, who cleared them by lining an opposite-field double to the right-field corner for a 3-0 lead before Sabathia had recorded his second out. Before Tuesday, the Yankees left-hander allowed more than three earned runs in only two of his previous 10 starts.
Right fielder Jason Heyward had hit .323 with two homers and six RBIs in eight June games before Tuesday, but Gonzalez opted to start Diaz in right due to his career statistics against Sabathia (5-for-9 before Tuesday) and stats against lefties this season.
Diaz had a .311 average with two homers and an .881 on-base plus slugging percentage in 45 at-bats against lefties before Tuesday, while Heyward had a .194 average with two homers, 23 strikeouts and a .575 OPS in 72 at-bats against lefties.
The move paid off when Diaz staked Minor and the Braves to an early three-run lead with one swing.
Heyward entered the game for defense in the top of the seventh inning and pushed the Braves’ lead to 4-0 with his bases-loaded groundout in the bottom of the inning.