For seven innings Sunday, the only real shame for the Braves was their complete lack of offensive support for Mike Minor, continuing a trend when the young left-hander’s on the mound.
Then Minor was replaced and, coincidentally or not, the game careened off the tracks for the Braves, who gave up four runs in the last two messy innings of a 5-0 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers at Turner Field.
They walked the leadoff hitter in the eighth and right fielder Jason Heyward lost two fly balls in the sun in the last two innings as the Dodgers handed the Braves their first series defeat in a month and first back-to-back home losses in that same period.
““When you give a team outs or opportunities by losing balls in the sun or losing fly balls, that kind of stuff, or walking people, it seems like it’s written in the rule book someplace that sooner or later somebody’s going to hit a ball in the gap and put a big inning on you,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “And that’s what they did. We gave them opportunities and they took advantage of them.”
The Braves finished 4-3 on a homestand that started with a loss to San Diego and ended with two against the Dodgers. They won three against the Padres and the opener against L.A., but the Braves had hoped for more before heading out on an important 10-game road trip that starts Monday night against National League East leader Washington. The Nationals beat New York Sunday to increase their lead to five games over the Braves.
“They beat us this series, nothing we can make excuses about,” Braves center fielder Michael Bourn said of the Dodgers, who got seven strong innings from Chad Billingsley (10-9) and picked up their 11th win in 16 games. “Hands down, they got us. We’ll go in and be ready to play against the Nationals.”
Billingsley held the Braves to three hits and two walks to become the first Dodger to win six consecutive starts since Kevin Brown in 2003. The right-hander leads the NL with six wins since the All-Star break and has a 1.30 ERA during his winning streak.
The Braves trailed 1-0 after seven and thought they’d have a chance against the Dodgers bullpen, but that was before the one-run deficit mushroomed.
Heyward lost a Mark Ellis fly ball in the sun with one out in the eighth inning, bringing in a run. Three more runs scored on Ellis’ bases-clearing double down the left-field line in the ninth, three batters after Heyward lost a fly ball off the bat of A.J. Ellis that landed in front of Heyward’s glove as he lunged after seeing the ball at the last moment. That was ruled a double.
“At this time of year the sun’s right there,” said Heyward, who was wearing sunglasses on both plays. “The ball stayed in [the sun], twice unfortunately, and they were able to capitalize. The second one, I tried to stay there as long as I could to try to get on the side of it, but it kept going that way. Not anything else I could do.”
Minor (6-10) got the loss despite allowing just five hits, one run and no walks in seven innings. A homer by Luis Cruz in the fifth was the only run against Minor, who has a 2.34 ERA in his past eight starts, but only a 2-4 record to show for it during that period. The Braves scored no runs while he was in the game during four of those starts, and scored one and two runs while he was in two others.
“That’s just part of it,” Minor said of the poor run support. “I feel like they’ve battled their [tails] off out there. Especially today. I only had two strikeouts, so there was a lot of defense out there. Jason fighting the sun, there’s nothing you can do about that.
“[Run support] is just kind of one of those things. [Philadelphia’s] Cliff Lee went through a little of that early in the season. I’m just going to go out there and keep pitching.”
He’s not piling up wins, but Minor has seven quality starts in his past eight outings, the only exception a rain-shortened start. Gonzalez said the outcome took nothing away from the performance of the lefty, who got out of a bases-loaded, no-outs jam in the third by coaxing a fly to medium right field (the Dodgers wouldn’t test Heyward’s arm) and a double-play grounder.
““I thought he was outstanding,” Gonzalez said. “Got into some jams early and wiggled out of that, and it’s nice to see the maturity and experience kicking in, where he can get out of those jams. He did terrific. It seems like there’s always one guy in every rotation that doesn’t get any run support. And he seems to be the guy. And I don’t know what he needs to do. Just keep pitching the way he’s been pitching and hopefully one of these starts down the road, our guys will get some runs for him.”
Gonzalez was asked about replacing Minor after he’d thrown 97 pitches and retired the last eight batters he faced. He brought Minor out as if he were going to pitch the eighth, but it was to see if the Dodgers would bring in pinch-hitter Juan Uribe to hit for Billingsley leading off the eighth.
When the Dodgers made that move, Gonzalez brought in right-hander Chad Durbin to face Uribe. Minor never threw a pitch in the eighth, and the move backfired when Durbin walked Uribe.
“I honestly thought I was going to go out there and pitch the eighth,” said Minor, who still felt strong. “And then they made their move and we made our move. It was just kind of strategizing from there.”