This being baseball, there are no must-win games in June. There can be, however, need-to-win games. For the Braves, Saturday’s encounter rose to the latter level.
They’d fallen 4 ½ games behind Washington in the National League East and to fourth place in the wild-card standings. They’d followed a 14-15 May with a 12-12 June, which meant they’d been mediocre for two solid months. And here, on the hottest day Hotlanta had ever known, came Stephen Strasburg to bring the big heat.
Strasburg is the best young pitcher in baseball. His opponent was Mike Minor, who had, according to FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement index, been the worst starting pitcher in the National League. Seeing those names, the mind ran through a set of chilling calculations: “So Strasburg beats Minor and the Braves are 5 ½ back and they’re facing Gio Gonzalez, who’s 10-3, on Sunday, and this could be out of hand by the Fourth.”
But that sound you heard was that doomsday scenario getting wadded up and flung toward yonder trashcan. Stephen Strasburg did not beat Mike Minor. Other way around.
Strasburg was gone after three innings, having walked Michael Bourn and Martin Prado twice each and having paid the price the second time. He was pulled because of heat-related symptoms – gametime temperature was 104 degrees – but also because the Braves made him throw 67 pitches to get nine outs.
That was clever: On a day that was oppressive for everyone, starting pitchers figured to have it the worst. A hitter could stand there with the bat on his shoulder, but a pitcher had to exert himself. Bourn and Prado made Strasburg work from the very first, and after two innings the famous flinger was in a curious position: Leading 2-0 and working on a no-hitter but, owing to his labors, bound for trouble.
“We’ve been pretty good at driving up his pitch count here,” said Chipper Jones, who didn’t play Saturday. “But when he beat us up there, he just controlled us.”
Maybe Strasburg would have gotten off easier had Minor not thrown the biggest pitch of the season’s first three months: A change-up to Ian Desmond that induced a double play with the bases loaded. Minor had yielded runs in the first and second innings and wobbling in the third. The Nationals had gone walk, single, walk, whereupon pitching coach Roger McDowell finally roused himself.
Said Minor, recalling his coach’s message: “He said, ‘We’re all right. Get the double play and we’re out of this.’ It was better having had a little break and realizing it’s not as bad as what you might think.”
Well, yes. That’s the purpose of a mound visit, a strategic device the Braves can be slow to utilize. But this consultation could have worked no better. The first-pitch change-up ended the inning, and when next Minor took the ball, his team was ahead 3-2 and Strasburg was done.
Said manager Fredi Gonzalez, speaking of Minor: “I think we took a step forward with him today. He competed his butt off.”
The Braves would score four more times off reliever Chien-Ming Wang, and they’d need the cushion. Minor tired in the sixth and the Braves needed four relievers to finish, but Kris Medlen and Chad Durbin worked out of pickles and the sweltering afternoon ended in smiles.
June concluded with the Braves 3 ½ games back, as opposed to 5 ½, which would have marked their biggest deficit of the season. They’d beaten one the best in Strasburg, even if extenuating meteorological circumstances did play some part. They can greet July feeling that their best work is still ahead, because – let’s be frank – they’ve been running in place since April.
Catching the Nats won’t be easy. Washington has the better rotation by some distance, and it figures to get outfielder Jayson Werth, who broke his wrist May 7, back soon. The Braves are better than they’ve played, but they’ll need more good starts from Minor and Randall Delgado to have a chance at winning the East.
Minor did his bit Saturday, winning a sizable game on a sizzling Saturday. Baseball being baseball, there’s a chance we’ll have no reason to recall this day three months hence. But if October arrives and the Braves are still playing for something, we should.
By Mark Bradley