ATLANTA — Here are three things we learned from the Braves’ 11-3 rout of the Blue Jays on Thursday, culminating in a series split between the clubs (two apiece):
1. The Braves don’t necessarily need the long ball to be a quick-strike offense
With the score knotted at 3 in the 6th and Atlanta seemingly on its heels, Evan Gattis, Brian McCann, Ramiro Pena and Chris Johnson produced a flurry of singles, leading to three Braves scores and a three-run advantage by inning’s end — the same differential after the 5th.
One inning later, Freddie Freeman, Gattis and Pena ignited another three-run spurt with singles, with Pena’s two-run hit getting a friendly infield bounce just before first baseman Edwin Encarnacion could field the ball.
All told, in a season where Braves fans have grown accustomed to rallies starting with big blasts, especially at home, Thursday’s response was comparatively humble:
Timely base hits, good hustle plays (Chris Johnson’s double-play avoidance) and selfless acts in key situations — like pitcher Mike Minor’s textbook sacrifice bunt in the 6th, immediately preceding Jordan Schafer’s game-changing, two-run single (making the score 6-3).
OK, so Reed Johnson belted a pinch-hit homer in the 8th and Freeman clubbed a solo shot off Toronto starter R.A. Dickey … but what else would you expect on Freddie Freeman Bobblehead Night?
Bottom line: The Braves were coolly efficient, notching 12 singles, striking out just five times and stranding only seven runners. And that level of proficiency doesn’t even include McCann’s letter-perfect bunt down the third-base line in the 4th — with Toronto playing The Shift to right field — that might have resulted in a double … if the ball hadn’t inched foul at the very last second.
Bunt double? It was practically the only thing we didn’t see from Atlanta’s bats.
2. Mike Minor is the Braves’ best starting pitcher right now
Since Sept. 5 of last year, spanning 16 starts and 103.2 innings, Minor (7-2) boasts sparkling tallies of 11-2, a 2.00 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 94/23 K-BB rate — numbers befitting an ace for a pennant contender and burgeoning All-Star at the age of 25.
And of those 16 outings, Minor has surrendered three or less runs 15 times. That’s James Shields or Adam Wainwright territory!
“I felt great again, had a lot of good defense out there,” said Minor, while noting the “pick-me-up” he got from the Braves hitters after allowing three runs (one unearned) in the sixth. “It felt good just to get a win, against a tough team like (the Blue Jays).”
Minor modesty aside, it’s time to revisit one of our favorite hypothetical dilemmas:
If the Braves were thrust back into the unenviable position of being a wild-card team in the National League playoffs — unenviable because Atlanta (32-21) currently leads the East by 5.5 games — would Minor, Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen or even Brandon Beachy draw the ultimate start?
Those who favor experience would probably say Hudson. Those who prefer upside might lean toward Medlen or Beachy (assuming he pitches well upon returning from elbow surgery). But for those who prefer upside, experience, talent and track record … Minor (seven innings vs. Toronto) appears to be the easy call.
“(Minor) held his composure” after the sixth inning, said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. “He’s been tremendous for us.”
3. Gonzalez has a knack for evading potentially dicey questions about the batting lineup
Schafer (one run, two hits, two RBI) had a productive night at the leadoff spot and center field, in place of B.J. Upton, the Braves’ big-money acquisition from the offseason.
If this were an isolated case of Schafer being a superb table-setter and defensive artisan, the Schafer-Upton focus would be a non-issue. But Upton has zero steals, one homer, three RBI and just 10 hits for all of May — on top of a sluggish April that netted six runs and a .143 batting average.
After Thursday’s game, Gonzalez dealt with roundabout questions as to whether Schafer would be in Friday’s lineup, against Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg.
“(Schafer’s) playing well,” Gonzalez said. “The one thing you want to do is put your best team out there. … But he’s playing well; we’ll see.”
He then added: “We’re a deep team, positionally (speaking). Some days, the guys on the bench might be better than the guys in the field — and vice versa. … I’m sure, at the end of June or July, the team that’s supposed to be out there, will be out there.”
Schafer, on his second tour of duty with the Braves after getting dropped by the anemic Astros, has two homers, 10 runs and a .288 batting average for May.
Of greater relevance, he has excellent monthly marks with OBP (.393) and slugging (.500).