Before Tuesday’s game, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez noted that Kris Medlen, sent to Class AAA to “stretch out” his arm in case he’s needed in the rotation, was scheduled to throw 95 pitches in his next Gwinnett start. Meaning: Any more wobbles from Mike Minor could mean his last name becomes his next destination.
If that weren’t enough, Minor’s mound opponent this night was the heavyweight (word used advisedly) CC Sabathia. The massive Yankee — “He’s a moose,” Gonzalez said of Sabathia — had won seven games to Minor’s three, had compiled an ERA of 3.69 to Minor’s 6.57. Were this, er, a heavyweight bout, they’d have stopped it before it started. But this was baseball, and in baseball there’s no such thing as a sure thing.
To wit: The underwhelming Minor worked his best start since the second Saturday of the season, and he did exactly what Gonzalez had, speaking before the game, said he wanted: “I want him to go deep in the ballgame, past the fifth. I don’t think very many clubs are built to have four innings of relief.”
Over his past six starts Minor had worked six innings only once, that on a night in Cincinnati when he left with his team down 4-1. He had won only once since April 19, that on a night in Miami when he needed 103 pitches through five. He had become the weakest link in an underperforming rotation, and there have been times when it seemed his status with the big-league club was, to invoke the sporting prognosis, day to day.
But on a night when Yankee fans — and maybe one or two of those who back the Braves — arrived expecting a walkover, Minor gave his team and his career a lift. He threw 7 1/3 innings against the Bronx Bombers, limiting them to five hits and one earned run. This was the Minor who, on April 14, had held the brawny Milwaukee Brewers to two hits in 7 2/3 innings, only this was better because it was against the Bronx Bombers and their burly ace.
The night began with Derek Jeter, who in a pregame briefing had lavished praise on the retiring Chipper Jones, singling up the middle. (Right here you thought, “Uh, oh.”) After retiring Curtis Granderson, Minor walked Mark Teixeira. (And here you thought, “Told you so.”) But Minor induced a foul pop from the famous Alex Rodriguez and a groundout from the stellar Robinson Cano, and the half-inning was done.
When next Minor threw a pitch, he had a three-run lead. Michael Bourn singled leading off the home half. Brian McCann, who had made 850 feet of screaming outs in Monday’s game, hoisted a ground-rule double. Dan Uggla walked to load the bases. Matt Diaz doubled to right, thereby unloading them.
We pause to note: At 3:40 p.m., the aforementioned Chipper was heard to exclaim in the Braves’ clubhouse, “My professional career is over! I’m hitting behind Matty Diaz.” Chipper was kidding, but still: It was noteworthy to see the future Hall of Famer batting sixth to Diaz’s fifth, and it was likewise intriguing that Gonzalez had benched Jason Heyward to make room for Diaz. “I told Jason, ‘This is not a platoon thing,’ ” Gonzalez said.
Nope. Just good managing. The right-handed Diaz got the key hit off the fearsome lefty Sabathia, and Minor took it from there. He didn’t look like a big-league team’s fifth starter; he looked, not for the first time but for the first time in a while, like a big-league pitcher.
In his most recent start Minor had needed 103 pitches to record 15 outs. This time his 100th pitch saw him working to Jeter with one out in the eighth and the Braves leading 4-nil. That pitch was Minor’s last — Jeter, who has hit everybody for the past 16 years — singled to right, and Gonzalez made a change. The manager had gotten what he’d wanted and more, and Mike Minor left to a rousing ovation.
He did not, however, go home as the winning pitcher. Jonny Venters faced four Yankees and retired none of the above. With the bases loaded, A-Rod drilled a 3-2 Venters serve over the left-field fence for the most deflating home run hit in this city by a Bomber since that rat Jim Leyritz.
Mike Minor had spent 2 1/2 hours giving his team a major lift, and with one swing the lead was gone. Then Cory Gearrin was greeted by a Nick Swisher two-run shot, and the Yankees were ahead. The weakest link had held up, but the acclaimed bullpen let him down.
And for those of you who are wondering: No, the Braves were not crushed by this stunning defeat. Dazed, but not crushed. “You’ve just got to flush it,” Chipper Jones said. “We play 162 of these. You can’t dwell on one or two of them. You’ve got to be professional.”
Gonzalez said his plan was to pull Minor after the first baserunner in the eighth, which is what happened, and it’s hard to fault that move. Minor had gotten the Braves far enough that Venters, whose province is the eighth inning, could be summoned. Trouble is, this was the bad Venters we’ve seen on occasion. He tried to throw A-Rod a sinker. It didn’t sink until it dipped into the seats in left.
Said Venters: “I threw a pitch right down the middle to one of the best players in the game … I made a bad pitch and he crushed it.”
The grand slam was A-Rod’s 23rd, tying him with the immortal Yankee Lou Gehrig, so it’s not as if the Braves didn’t have a part in history being made. But most of the postgame talk concerned Minor, of whom Jones said: “This was by far his best start in the major leagues. He was dominant.”
Minor: “I have had a lot of bad starts this year, but [management has] also seen me pitch well. They know what I can do.”
Gonzalez: “Minor was outstanding. We pushed him as hard as we could. He did a terrific job.”
(As to why the just-up-from Gwinnett Gearrin was deployed in a tie game with one out in the eighth, Gonzalez said Eric O’Flaherty wasn’t available Tuesday. Seems he awoke the other day with a twinge in his elbow.)
Asked if he would give his players a pick-me-up talk after this egregious reversal, Gonzalez said: “Maybe tomorrow when we stretch.” And that, too, sounded about right. No sense smashing furniture after a game like this.
Said Chipper, who could actually smile after this one (as opposed to the Leyritz game, when nobody smiled for a month): “We did our job for eight-ninths of the game.”
Yes, losing hurt. But there was good to be taken from this loss, and that, pardon the pun, is no minor thing.
By Mark Bradley