Three Cuts: Braves fall to Giants in Minor's 2014 debut
MAY 03, 2014 12:25a ET
ATLANTA -- The San Francisco Giants helped extend the Braves' longest losing streak of the 2014 season with a 2-1 win at Turner Field on Friday night, doing their offensive damage with the long ball and holding onto a one-run lead with quality pitching from starter Tim Lincecum and three relievers. Still, even in the losing effort, the return of starting pitcher Mike Minor, following a month of rehab work, was the news of the night. Here are three observations from the game:
Mike Minor's 2014 debut was, for at least a couple hours on Friday evening, lost in the shuffle of the Turner Field news cycle that included the three-year extension signed by teammate Chris Johnson and the return of former pitcher Tim Hudson, who sat in the opposing dugout in Giants black and orange for the first time. Perhaps anonymity suited Minor in the build-up, because after five minor league rehab appearances and a Braves rotation that showed some signs of (expected) regression down in Miami, expectations were high for the standout left-hander, even if it was, as manager Fredi Gonzalez put it, his first start after spring training.
But for those who needed a quick refresher course on the occasion, Minor didn't give them much time to study.
His second pitch didn't stay in the park very long. This wash't exactly new territory for Minor.
"I've done that before," he said with a smirk.
Throwing two season-opening fastballs to Giants center fielder and leadoff hitter Angel Pagan, Minor allegedly missed the strike zone ... then looked over his right shoulder. That's because Pagan put the second pitch into the seats in left field on a 1-0 count, a line drive home run that sent Minor's ERA to infinity. He's now served up 13 first-inning homers in his career, second-most of any frame outside the fourth, including a similar first-inning shot from Kansas City's Alex Gordon with zero on and zero out last season. Again, this was not new territory. Minor has recovered from rocky opening frames before.
"I didn't want to be picky and walk some guys or nibble around the plate. I wanted to attack the zone and throw strikes," the 26-year-old lefty said. "And then first at-bat of the game, second pitch, just trying to -- I thought the first pitch of the game was a strike (called a ball) so with the second pitch I was like, 'Oh, I'm just gonna try to lay this one in there.' And didn't think he was gonna swing, thought he was going to take a strike."
Pagan did not take the pitch. But Minor's debut improved from there. He would give up the go-ahead run in the top of the sixth to cleanup hitter Michael Morse, but overall he threw strikes (69 percent strike rate) and worked out of trouble through six innings of work.
The two solo home runs were the only runs he allowed to cross, giving up six hits and striking out four. He did not issue a single walk.
"I thought Mike was outstanding today, especially after that first at-bat (against) Pagan," said manager Fredi Gonzalez, who was planning on sending Minor back out for the seventh inning before a pinch-hit opportunity. "He got a couple balls hit hard that first inning, then after that he settled in."
In many ways, it was a debut that falls right in line with the outings the Braves' rotation has been piecing together this season -- even including the awful run of starting pitching down at Marlins Park, the Braves' patchwork rotation allowed two runs or fewer in 21 of the 27 starts before Minor was activated -- limiting damage and giving the offense a puncher's chance (even if punches repeatedly missed their marks) to break what is now a four-game losing streak.
Minor's velocity sat right at his career averages and though he admitted he left some pitches out over the plate, perhaps as a byproduct of "over-pitching," he took some solace in the fact that many of those pitches were of the off-speed variety. Over the past two seasons, Minor has been one of the best fastball pitchers in baseball -- only 10 other pitchers, guys with names like Kershaw and Lee and Scherzer, boasted a more "valuable" fastball in the 2012 and 2013 seasons -- and if that pitch is working, he's a top-of-the-rotation guy the Braves came to rely on last season.
"Everything works off your fastball. If you feel like you can locate your fastball off both sides of the plate and then your slider and your curveball and your changeup is going to work off that," Minor said. "And then even when you're not on with your off-speed, if you're making pitches with your fastball the hitter tends to -- even if you leave it middle -- it's good enough for them to roll over or pop it up."
Everything went according to plan for the Braves' offense in the bottom of the ninth with two outs ... right up until Giants closer Sergio Romo was pumping his fist following his eighth save of 2014.
After Romo retired pinch hitter Evan Gattis and leadoff hitter Jason Heyward, Gonzalez sent B.J. Upton to the plate with no room for error. On the fifth pitch he saw, the Braves center fielder laced a single to left field. He followed that up with the 250th stolen base of his career to get into scoring position for Freddie Freeman, one of the most dangerous two-out hitters with runners in scoring position last season. But instead of driving in Upton, Freeman drew a six-pitch walk, setting up Justin Upton, who ranks fourth the majors in weighted runs created (186 wRC+), for a potential walk-off or game-tying situation.
But after fighting off multiple pitches, the younger Upton was set down on strikes.
Once again the Braves, who have scored just 97 runs in 28 games this season (3rd-worst in baseball), exited the game with just one run on the board.
"We had the right guys at the plate today. That last inning with Freeman and (Justin) Upton, you like to have those two guys come up to the plate, especially in a one-run game," Gonzalez said. "We're not putting that crooked number up."
No, they are not. The Braves are about as one-sided as it gets with pitching-batting productivity, ranking 28th in runs scored (18th in wRC+, for what it's worth) to back up a pitching staff that ranks first in ERA and second in wins above replacement. The lineup regulars know they are coming up short, which makes it all the more frustrating when they leave 12 guys on base and hit 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position.
"We should win those games," Johnson said of the game when the staff allows just two runs. "It's frustrating right now, us not being able to help (our pitchers) out at all. Left guys on base, I left some guys on base today. We're just in one of ruts where we've just gotta get that big hit. We just need one to get us going."
Gonzalez and Johnson both have mentioned previously how they are making solid contact on the ball, but the balls just haven't found the gaps. In some cases, as others pointed out on Friday night, this is true. Atlanta ranks right around the league averagee with a line drive rate at 20 percent, but on those hard-hit balls, a little bit of dumb luck is coming into play: the Braves rank 24th in on-base percentage (.654) and 26th in weighted runs created (326). The league averages in those categories are .690 OBP and 354 wRC+, so if it seems like the Braves are hitting liners right at fielders more than most teams then it's not completely off-base.
That being said, outside of their poor situational hitting, the Braves draw walks at a below-average rate and still strike out with the best (or worst) of the teams. There's plenty to fix, but eventually these things will at least break even, right?
Chris Johnson asked a similar question: "They've gotta drop at some point, right?"
Gonzalez used his All-Star closer in the ninth inning, likely just to get some in-game work for the first time since April 25 and to keep his team within striking distance in the bottom of the ninth, and the results were exactly what we've come to expect.
Kimbrel logged two strikeouts and did not allow and hit and, aside from that whole "striking out the side" thing, he was pretty much perfect. Just another day the office. Kimbrel entered the game tied for second in wins above replacement among qualified relievers, and his recent outing will do nothing to boot him out of the group headed (somewhat surprisingly) by Milwaukee's bounce-back bullpen arm Francisco Rodriguez.
And if there's a good bet on who ends the year on top of that value list, you know where the smart money is going. Kimbrel's strikeout rate is at a career-high 19 per nine innings, which is very hard to do when you strike out 15 per nine over your career -- and it's by far the best rate in baseball among pitchers who have thrown at least 10 innings this season (K/9):
He just keeps rolling. The Braves just haven't had much use for him over the past week or so.