If Mike Minor were still pitching like he did in April and May, the Braves would be trying to trade for two starters instead of one.
But he’s not. The young left-hander has been a far better pitcher the past two months, including Saturday night when he limited the Phillies to four hits and one run with nine strikeouts in eight innings of a 2-1 win at Turner Field, the Braves’ fourth in a row.
The Braves scored two runs in the first three innings and held on to beat the Phillies for the fifth consecutive time and the sixth in eight games this season, moving to a season-high 12 games over .500.
Minor (6-7) retired the last 13 batters he faced and 14 of 15 after Chase Utley’s home run in the fourth inning cut the lead to 2-1.
“Today he was about as good as I’ve seen him,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “If you don’t have the best closer in the game sitting out there in the bullpen, and you get a couple more runs, you may want to run [Minor] back out there [for the ninth inning]. For me he was that dominant. He was terrific.”
Closer Craig Kimbrel pitched a perfect ninth inning with two strikeouts for his 30th save.
Minor is 4-3 with a 3.27 ERA in nine starts during June and July, after going 2-4 with a 6.98 ERA in 10 April-May starts.
“Complete 180 [degree turn],” he said of his improvement. “I wouldn’t say confidence, I’d just say my demeanor on the mound and not letting things get to me. Before, it snowballed early on if I gave up a couple of runs or whatever. Now it’s just part of the game. If I give up one or two we’re still in the ballgame and I don’t let things get carried away.”
Minor has allowed six earned runs in 27-1/3 innings in his past four starts, posting a 1.98 ERA in that stretch while allowing two earned runs or fewer in each game.
“When he pitches like he has the last couple of times, and that [earlier] stretch for a month, he’s a bonafide major league pitcher, a guy that can go out and win you 15 ballgames — even more,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “He’s getting better and better, and he’s a guy that we’re going to rely on down the stretch here to win us some big ballgames. Tonight was one of the first steps of doing that.”
The Braves, winners of 14 of their past 19 games and seven of their past nine at home, needed a strong performance from Minor on Saturday because Blanton (8-9) turned in a similar outing for the last-place Phillies.
Blanton allowed four hits and two runs in seven innings, with one walk and seven strikeouts. He retired 14 of the last 15 he faced, the only exception coming when Brian McCann reached on an error by first baseman Ryan Howard in the seventh inning.
“[Minor] had shutout, complete-game stuff tonight,” said third baseman Chipper Jones, who put the Braves ahead 1-0 with a sacrifice fly in the first inning. “As did Blanton. Blanton was very good, as he usually is against us. But Mikey was just one run better.”
McCann didn’t homer against the Phillies, the first time that’s happened all season. He homered in six consecutive games against them before Tuesday, the first player ever to hit a home run in as many games in a row against Philadelphia.
The Braves snapped an eight-game losing skid against the Phillies in their second game against them this season, and have won six of seven games between the teams since.
“They had our number for three or four years there,” McCann said, “and for us to go there and sweep, then come here and win two and have a chance to sweep them tomorrow, that’s big for us. Because that’s kind of a hurdle we needed to get over. They’ve got all their players here, all their guys that they won the World Series with. So it’s good to go out there, play good baseball and win.”
The five-time defending NL East champion Phillies are 45-56 and fell to 15-1/2 games behind first-place Washington. The Braves are four games behind the Nationals.
The Braves took a 1-0 lead in the first inning after back-to-back one-out singles by Martin Prado and Jason Heyward and Jones’ sac fly. With two on and two out, McCann flied out to the center-field warning track, coming within five feet of homering for the seventh consecutive game against Philadelphia.
Atlanta pushed its lead to 2-0 in the third after Bourn reached on a leadoff single, advanced on a groundout and scored from second on Heyward’s groundball single that wasn’t fielded cleanly by second baseman Utley beyond the back edge of the infield.
“We’ve got a date with Doc [Roy] Halladay tomorrow afternoon,” Jones said. “That’s going to be no easy task. He’s a really good pitcher. But we’ve got a chance to sweep, and we need to try and take advantage of that.”