BOSTON – There was plenty to recommend from the Braves’ six-day swing against the traditional American League East powers, but the road trip started and ended in alarmingly similar and troubling results for pitcher Mike Minor.
Minor allowed two walks followed by two homers before getting an out in the fourth inning of a 9-4 loss to Boston on Sunday at Fenway Park, where the Red Sox won the last two games to take the series 2-1.
The Braves finished 3-3 on a trip that began with a series win at Yankee Stadium, where their only loss came in the opening game when Minor sailed through four hitless innings and had a 2-0 lead before giving up three runs in a three-hit, two-walk fifth inning.
Eric Hinske broke from a long slump with a double, triple and two RBIs, and Jason Heyward extended his hitting streak to 10 games and continued his scorching month of June with three hits including a double and his 11th home run. But the seven runs (four earned) off Minor in the fourth and fifth innings put the Braves in a hole from which they could not climb back
“We’ve got to somehow, some way, get over the hump there,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Minor’s middle-innings meltdowns. “I keep saying the ‘young pitcher’ phrase. [But] we’ve got to get him over the hump somehow, whether it’s just keep running him out there, let him learn in those situations….”
Or what? Gonzalez didn’t mention any other option, one of which would be to replace Minor (3-5) in the starting rotation with reliever Kris Medlen, who returned just over a week ago from a two-week stint in Triple-A to build arm strength – “get stretched out” – in case he was needed to start.
If the Braves do decide to plug Medlen into the rotation, it might not necessarily even be in Minor’s spot. The Braves have two inconsistent young starters in the rotation, Minor and rookie Randall Delgado, who gave up four runs, six hits and two walks in just 1-1/3 innings of an 8-4 loss on Saturday in the briefest start of his career.
Delgado had pitched eight strong innings in his previous start against Baltimore.
“For us to be consistent we’ve got to have starting pitching,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve got to go two and three times through the rotation and have good outings. We can’t go time and half and all of a sudden have two starters or one starter give you three innings, that kind of stuff. We need to roll through the rotation two or three times with good outings.”
Minor, who on Sunday gave up three homers among six hits in 4-2/3 innings, had allowed just two runs in 12-1/3 innings during two encouraging starts at Miami and at home against the Yankees before going 0-2 with a 6.97 ERA in his starts on the trip to New York and Boston.
But those two previous strong starts were exceptions during a period in which Minor has gone 1-5 with 7.16 ERA in 11 starts while allowing 70 hits, 28 walks and a whopping 18 home runs in 60-1/3 innings.
“I’ve felt good my last four starts,” said Minor, who has a 6.14 ERA overall. “I know you’re not going to have your greatest stuff every time. I feel like today is one of those days.”
After giving up a three-run homer by Cody Ross followed two pitches later by an Adrian Gonzalez solo homer in the fourth inning, Minor watched his teammates score three runs in the top of the fifth to cut Boston’s lead to 4-3. Then he committed the pitching sin of giving up three runs in the bottom of the inning, including another two-run homer by Ross.
It didn’t much matter to Gonzalez that those three Red Sox runs in the fifth were unearned, after shortstop Andrelton Simmons’ throwing error to start the inning, the second error in 20 games for the impressive rookie since he arrived from Double-A.
“As a pitching staff we’ve got to cover that up,” Gonzalez said, meaning it was up to the pitchers not to overcome an occasional miscue. “Nobody goes out there without making errors or a mistake, a bloop single…. As we go forward with these guys, we’re going to have to cover that up….
“I think in the last six innings we’ve scored runs, we haven’t had a shutdown in five of their home halfs — they’ve scored right back at us. And that’s just tough to do, to keep doing that. These guys are second or third in their league in hitting and scoring runs, so it’s a good offensive team. But we’ve got to take it upon ourselves as a pitching staff to bear down and get a shutdown inning.”
The Red Sox have won seven of their past eight games to climb to four games over .500 (38-34) for the first time this season.
“We just ran into a pretty hot team,” said Hinske, who had been 4-for-58 with no extra-base hits before Sunday during a career-worst slump since a four-hit game May 4 at Colorado. “They’re swinging the bats well. If you look at the road trip, you say you split on it and take the positives. Winning three in a row and then losing the last two, you never want to do that. But we played pretty well.
“We swung the bats good, strung some runs together. We just gave up too many runs early to try to fight back from the last two days.”