Three Cuts: Uggla, Francisco homers power Braves by Reds

The Braves won their first series since beating Colorado on April 24 by taking down the Cincinnati Reds 7-2 on Wednesday afternoon. Here are three observations from the game:

1. Mike Minor did not need much help

If the young left-hander sticks to the present trend, his next two games will be gems.

Minor was lights-out in his seventh start of the season Wednesday afternoon, holding the Reds to just one run (a solo home run by shortstop Zack Cozart) on four hits and three walks. He also struck out seven batters. And while the walk numbers were a bit troubling — he had handed out just five free passes in his previous six games — he was able to be efficient, even dominant, when he got into rough spots.

It was the type of outing Atlanta got out of Minor (4-2) in his first three starts of the year (2-1, 0.95 ERA) instead of his past three outings (1-1, 5.49 ERA).

Minor’s return to quality form came at the expense of Cincinnati’s left-handed batters, especially through the middle of the order. Reds’ lefties — Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Shin-Soo Choo and Donald Lutz — went 1-for-11 with a walk and four strikeouts against him.

The game marked the first time Votto, one of the game’s premier hitters, failed to reach base since April 26 against Washington.

“After giving up four solo shots last year (in Great American Ball Park), and then only giving up one, that was a plus. It was huge,” Minor said. “I think the main change from last year would be that if things do go bad, I don’t dwell on that and think about that the whole time. I can kinda move on this season, move on to the next batter and think about him.”

Entering Wednesday’s game, only teammate Paul Maholm and White Sox pitcher Chris Sale have allowed a lower batting average and OPS against lefties than Minor this season. Left-handed hitters are now hitting at an ice-cold .100 clip against the 25-year-old. It’s hard to imagine him getting any better, but that’s exactly what he’s done throughout the early part of his career. Here is the progression of left-handed opponents’ OPS in his first four seasons:

2010: .795 (eight starts)
2011: .835 (15 starts)
2012: .724 (30 starts)
2013: .310 (seven starts)

Those plummeting numbers are excellent signs for Atlanta’s organization. With the win, Atlanta (20-13) became the first team to go into the Great American Ball Park and steal a series win. Minor and his success against lefties played a big part in that.

“He gave us a great opportunity to win the game and we were able to add on,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “He really did a nice job.”

(Although it should be mentioned: Evan Gattis, who received the start in left field, provided some defensive help by throwing out Brandon Phillips at home on a sacrifice fly attempt with the bases loaded. The rookie keeps producing, and surely his pitcher was grateful.)

2. Atlanta’s middle infielders are taking over the month of May

Dan Uggla and Andrelton Simmons are on individual tears. Just ask Cincinnati’s pitchers.

Uggla capped off his best series of the season with his first multi-home run game of the season, finishing 2-for-4 with three runs on Wednesday. For the series, he hit 5-for-12 with 13 total bases — he’s raised his overall average by 40 points already this month.

Just a few days ago, the second baseman said that April is “always a battle”, but that he’s usually able to make his tweaks in May. That seems to be the case once more. Uggla has been working alongside hitting coach Greg Walker by watching film of his 2006 days with the Marlins. 

“I was just more balanced,” Uggla said of his 2006 season. “I was able to handle a lot more pitches. I wasn’t, when I was getting pitches to hit earlier this season, I wasn’t really connecting with them. I needed a starting point to what I was doing in ’06 where I could go foul pole to foul pole. When I did get a good pitch, I didn’t miss it.”

Simmons was even better in Cincinnati, and it wasn’t just his defense. After the first four-hit game of his career, the young shortstop finished the best series of his career 8-for-13 with two doubles, two home runs and four RBI. In just three games, he elevated his batting average from .252 to .276.

If the best defensive shortstop (11 defensive runs saved) can consistently hit for power and average like he has this month, it’s time to start re-considering just how many guys play the position better.

In total, Uggla and Simmons hit .340 with five home runs and 40 total bases in Great American Ball Park.

That’s one heck of a series.

3. Juan Francisco was feeling grand

Not too many major league players are afforded the opportunity to hit a grand slam against his former team. Even fewer get that opportunity against the very player he was traded for.

That’s the exact situation Braves third baseman Juan Francisco faced in the eighth inning against Cincinnati reliever J.J. Hoover. The two were swapped in April of 2012.

On Wednesday, Francisco took Hoover deep, over the right-field fence, scoring himself, the Upton brothers and Freddie Freeman. If there’s a statistic for such a situation — player hitting a grand slam against former team off the very player he was traded for — I haven’t come across it yet.

It was Francisco’s only hit of the series.

However, the third-base position continues to provide power to the lineup, with Francisco, Chris Johnson and Ramiro Pena combining for seven home runs — trailing only left field (cough, Justin Upton)  and second base in home runs per position. Francisco’s 16 RBI also rank fourth on the team despite the platoon situation.

Safe to say, the Braves are feeling pretty grand about the Francisco-Hoover trade right about now.