After falling behind early in far too many games during their long, scorching hot and largely disappointing homestand, the Braves and pitcher Mike Minor got something Thursday that felt even better than cool rain might have. They got a pair of two-run homers in the first inning.
Jason Heyward and Brian McCann each homered in the four-run first inning, Mike Minor didn’t allow a hit until the fifth, and the Braves cruised to a 7-3 win against the Cubs to salvage splits of their four-game series and 10-game hometand.
“I like the way we scored runs at the beginning of the game and put pressure on,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose third-place Braves remained six games behind NL East leader Washington, with only a three-game series at Philadelphia remaining before the All-Star break. “Mikey went out there and shut ‘em down. He got better as the game went on. Real good outing on his part.”
Minor (5-6) completely outpitched Chicago’s Matt Garza, the veteran right-hander who has been one of the trade-bait pitchers some have speculated could eventually replace Minor or rookie Randall Delgado in the Braves rotation. The way he looked Thursday, it’s hard to imagine the Braves putting him near the top of their list of potential trade targets.
Garza (4-7) allowed five runs and three homers in four innings and threw 44 pitches in the first, including 16 to Juan Francisco. Freddie Freeman added a third-inning homer and Francisco homered in the eighth for the Braves, who won for just the third time in eight games.
“Yeah, we came out and had some good ABs early and basically the whole game,” McCann said. “It was great to give [Minor] a lead and give us a lead.”
Minor was just 2-5 with a 7.43 ERA in his past 11 starts before Thursday, when he worked 6-1/3 innings and was charged with three hits, three runs (two earned) and two walks with six strikeouts. Two runs scored after reliever Kris Medlen entered the game.
The big lead in the first inning made his job easier, Minor said.
“I just tried to throw strikes,” he said. “There for a while I was trying to over-throw and I kept going 2-0, 3-0. It wasn’t because I was trying to nip around the corners or anything, obviously, with a 4-nothing lead. It was more just trying to go after hitters, and I think I was over-throwing.”
A few times when he got behind hitters, Minor took a deep breath, gathered himself behind the mound, then threw strikes to his catcher McCann.
“This is a confidence builder [for Minor],” McCann said. “He made his pitches when he needed to. He had a no-hitter going to the fifth. He pitched well.”
Garza did not. He piled up 94 pitches in four innings including 28 in two plate appearances by Francisco, who fouled off a total of 17 pitches against the right-hander. Francisco filled in at third base for Chipper Jones, who was out of the lineup for a rest.
“How ‘bout the at-bat that Francisco gave Garza in that [first] inning?” Gonzalez said. “I don’t think he ever recovered from that. I think he ended up throwing 80, 90 pitches in four innings. And then he [Francisco] did it again his second at-bat. And hit a home run there at the end to cap it off. That’s good to see.”
It could be one of Minor’s last two starts before newcomer Ben Sheets joins the Braves rotation soon after the All-Star break. Sheets signed with the Braves last week and made his first minor league start Wednesday, and he’s likely to replace Minor or Delgado.
Gonzalez said before the game that he didn’t see it as a make-or-break start for Minor, but the left-hander pitched as if his spot depended on it. He didn’t give up a hit until Geovany Soto’s one-out homer in the fifth, and the Cubs didn’t have another runner reach second base until the seventh.
After Minor allowed a single and walk to start the seventh, Gonzalez left him in to face All-Star Bryan LaHair. Minor struck him out.
“For him to get LeHair out there was a big turning point for him,” Gonzalez said. “I think this is his second outing that’s pretty decent for him. He goes into the All-Star break feeling pretty good about himself, and maybe come out the other side with some momentum.”
Gonzalez then brought in Medlen, who gave up a two-out single to Reed Johnson that scored two runs, one unearned on Heyward’s throwing error.
Minor improved to 4-0 with a 4.30 ERA in four career starts against Cubs. The Braves have scored 28 runs while he’s been in those four games against Chicago, including the 2010 game when he set an Atlanta rookie record with 12 strikeouts.
Garza’s ERA climbed to 4.28 in 16 starts, including 5.67 in 10 road starts. With two rows of scouts seated behind home plate pointing radar guns at Garza, he got torched for five runs, five hits and three walks in four innings, with Freddie Freeman’s solo homer in the third pushing the lead to 5-0.
If you had never seen them pitch before Thursday and someone said the Braves might prefer to have Garza over Minor, you might think that person was dizzy from the heat.
Garza is 1-5 with a 6.57 ERA in his past seven road starts, with 12 homers allowed in in 37 innings. He’s allowed one home run in six home starts at Wrigley Field, but given up a whopping 14 homers in 10 road starts.
No, if a starting pitcher impressed any scouts on Thursday, it was probably Minor.