The Atlanta Braves wrapped up their 10-game road trip with a 6-4 record after taking down the New York Mets 6-1 on Thursday night. Behind yet another fantastic outing from resurgent left-hander Mike Minor, the Braves avoided a series loss for the fourth straight time and kept themselves near the forefront of the wildcard hunt. Here are three observations from the game:
In terms of midseason decision-making, the choice by the Braves’ brass to skip what would have been Mike Minor’s second August start could not have worked out any better. It was a near-flawless act of micromanaging a pitching staff, or addressing a young pitcher’s recurring problems, and the five-man rotation is all the better for it moving forward.
In Mike Minor’s past four starts, he owns a 2.22 ERA. He’s allowed just five hits in past two outings and opponents are reaching base at a .234 clip over that stretch.
On Thursday night, five days removed from posting a one-hitter through 7 2/3 innings pitched, he carried a two-hitter (with zero walks) into the eighth inning. It’s really not worth going into just how much of an improvement this is over his previous 17 starts, but here’s the gist of it: the lefty has provided the team with more value in the past two weeks than he did the previous three months.
Without jumping too high given the small sample size, it certainly looks like the 26-year-old is back.
Plus, the Braves have won each of his past three starts — it’s difficult to envision this division and wildcard race with three poor outings instead.
"He’s been solid four times out. Today I thought his curveball was probably his best pitch other than commanding his fastball, and he had a nice mix going. He had a really nice mix," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "The young man earlier in the year had some tough luck and I think he’s progressing in the right direction. … There’s no question (the rotation is stronger when Minor is on), there’s no question. He’s one of those guys that can keep a winning streak going or stop a losing streak. He has that capability.
"I really like the way he’s been able to repeat his delivery and use all his pitches."
With his most recent outing, one in which he held the Mets to just one run while his offense came through late, Minor’s 2014 numbers are inching closer to a respectable range. His ERA dropped 20 points to 4.70, his FIP dropped 15 points and with every positive result he seems to gain confidence.
Oh, and he drove in the go-ahead run in the second inning.
"At one point in the game, he was everything," Gonzalez said. "He pitched well, he drove in a run, got a double. Shoot, did he score on that double later on in that inning? (Yes.) He was not only pitching well, he was our offense for six innings."
Much of the credit is, interestingly enough, being given to veteran starter Ervin Santana, who apparently shared some grip advice with Minor during his down time, specifically with his slider and changeup. Given that both pitches have been plus pitches for Santana this season — his slider has been a plus pitch in each of the past seven seasons, according to Fangraphs’ runs above average — it makes sense that Minor would listen. It makes even more sense that if his breaking stuff (particularly his slider, which dropped off significantly this season) starts working, then it gives him some breathing room to work off his fastball.
Whatever it is, Minor has looked like the top-half-of-the-rotation type of guy again.
Sustainability is another thing entirely, but if this is close to normal for Minor for the rest of the season, the wildcard race gets that much easier. (And no, it’s not going to be easy. Easier.)
The Braves utility man is making this a habit.
Bonifacio, 29, is packing nearly all of his career-best games into the 2014 season, and the New York Mets got the latest dose of what his bat — and speed — can do when things are going right. Bonifacio lit up Mets starter Jonathan Niese and his bullpen on Thursday night, going 4 for 5 with two RBI and an RBI triple. That’ll do quite nicely for an offense whose only run through the first seven innings was driven in by a pitcher, and one that was clinging to a 1-0 lead at the time of his three-base hit.
"I feel very confident," Bonifacio said after the performance. "I was hitting the ball pretty good and I gave an opportunity to the team to win the ballgame."
Thursday night marked Bonifacio’s eighth career four-hit game in eighth big-league seasons. Five of them have come this season alone, meaning more than any time before Bonifacio possesses the ability to turn into a one-game offensive juggernaut. This was the first such game he gave the Braves offense, but he’s averaging about one per month so look out September opponents.
This wasn’t the best game of his career — he put together a five-hit, one-walk night earlier this season, while two other four-hit nights have included a homer — but it was plenty good enough in the 2-hole of Gonzalez’s lineup.
For his part, Gonzalez simply liked the matchup.
"He had a great day," Gonzalez said of his center fielder. "You run him in there because you see the numbers a little bit against Niese — and same thing with (catcher Gerald) Laird — and both guys got some big days. Well, Laird got a base hit off Niese. But Boni got some stuff going and scored a couple runs."
In the grand scheme of things, it will be interesting to see how this affects Gonzalez’s lineup as the Braves return to Turner Field to face Bonifacio’s former team, the Miami Marlins. The 2-hole has been manned by a rotation of Bonifacio, Phil Gosselin and Andrelton Simmons for the past 15 games, alternating a different guy practically every outing.
If Bonifacio can stay in the lineup, depending on his defensive position, it would be difficult to see him hitting somewhere else on Friday night following this outing.
Breaking down offensive performance by inning, the Braves rank as a top-10 MLB offense just twice: the first inning and eighth inning. And while the first inning (110 OPS+, ninth-best in the majors) is perhaps more surprising given the team’s struggles at the top of the lineup for a good portion of this season, it’s the eighth inning — when the league’s averages and on-base percentages fall — that they do their most damage in relation to the rest of baseball.
The Braves ranked seventh-best in baseball with a 111 OPS+ in the eighth inning, and that was before coming up with a single, a double, a triple and two runs in that frame during Thursday’s game. For those who have watched recent outings, this may not come as a surprise, as the team often stumbles through the opening frames before piecing together some strong plate appearances in the late going.
Of course, that doesn’t always amount to a victory, but it did serve as insurance for Mike Minor against the Mets. Atlanta tacked on two runs in the eighth and three more in the ninth, and it’s that psuedo-resilience that has drawn praise from Gonzalez even in losses. It paid off on this night.
"Those add-on runs are big," Gonzalez said. "We had (closer Craig) Kimbrel up and we didn’t have to use him."