Three Cuts: Braves rally again to finish off sweep of Dodgers

ATLANTA — Gerald Laird hadn’t played in five days; Chris Johnson was getting a day off.

But with the bases loaded, the two came in as pinch-hitters, delivering RBI singles in a four-run eighth inning as the Braves rallied for a rain-delayed 5-2 win over the Dodgers.

“We’ve won a lot of games with the long ball but today we put some balls in play,” Laird said. “We played small-ball and we were able to get ourselves in a good situation and found some holes out there.”

Here are three observations after Atlanta’s fourth series sweep of the season and the first over Los Angeles since April 2008.

1. He didn’t get the win, but Minor impressed yet again

Early trouble is becoming commonplace for Mike Minor. So, too, is how the left-hander is dealing with it.

Minor came in having given up just six hits to left-handed hitters, but he allowed two in the first inning as Carl Crawford hit a lead-off double and three batters later, Adrian Gonzalez singled him home.

That marked the third time in his last four starts that Minor found himself playing from behind after one. There was May 3 vs. the Mets, when Ruben Tejada opened with a double and John Buck homered (Lucas Duda would also homer to start the second) and then May 13 when the Diamondbacks’ Paul Goldschmidt hit a solo homer.

And like he did in those other two starts, Minor responded.

He would give up one more hit — a Matt Kemp double in the third — and one run over the next five innings, as Gonzalez’s sacrifice fly scored Crawford, who drew a lead-off walk. Minor would go on to retire the last 10 batters he faced.

“I felt better after the first couple of innings,” Minor said. “I couldn’t get through the 1-5, but after the second time through their lineup I started making better pitches.”

Minor didn’t return following the 33-minute rain delay in the middle of the sixth inning, exiting with a season-high nine strikeouts — three off his career-best of 12 set on Aug. 22, 2010 vs. the Cubs — and he issued two walks.

“Like we keep saying, you can’t wait for his next start,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “He just keeps getting better and better and giving you quality start after quality start. He didn’t get a decision there, but he kept us in the ballgame.”

Leading the team in ERA (2.78), strikeouts (51) and WHIP (0.963), there’s no question that Minor is the Braves’ ace right now.

2. Schafer is making a case for a consistent spot in the lineup — but it may not be enough

The Braves didn’t claim Jordan Schafer, their one-time top-ranked prospect, off waivers with the intent of him playing in center field on an everyday basis — for that purpose, they signed free-agent B.J. Upton.

But Schafer has become too valuable to sit with a .308/.423/.431 slash line. He has twice as many stolen bases as the next closest Braves, B.J. and Justin Upton, leads the team with a 16.3 walk rate and his strikeout rate of 23.8 percent is the third-fewest among players with at least 75 plate appearances.

Of course, getting Schafer playing time is easier said than done now that Jason Heyward has returned to the lineup and off days for either him or the Uptons will be few and far between.

At the same time, B.J. Upton is struggling — he’s hitting .145 with three homers in 157 plate appearances — and Schafer gives Gonzalez something he hasn’t found elsewhere: a true leadoff hitter.

Schafer is proving a spark, but Upton has the kind of power and speed that when he hits his rhythm, Schafer can’t match it, and he needs to be in the lineup to find his way.

How Gonzalez handles this balancing act will be interesting to watch.

3. On a strikeout-heavy team, Francisco is standing out

We all knew strikeouts would be part of these Braves’ makeup, so it should come as no surprise that they rank second in MLB with 396 Ks.

But even on a team that’s, to put it bluntly, built to whiff, what Juan Francisco is doing is alarming.

With two strikeouts Sunday, which came on the heels of a four-strikeout day when he last played on May 15 vs. the D-backs, he now has 39 in 96 plate appearances. That’s a rate of 40.6 percent, which is the highest by any Atlanta position player by nearly seven percent. It also puts him 15 Ks behind Dan Uggla, the team’s leader with 54 whiffs, and Francisco has 64 fewer at-bats.

In the last three years, Francisco has seen his strikeout rate increase, going from 24.7 in ’11 to 34.1 last year and now a pace that has him closing in on half of his at-bats.

Given the way Johnson has played, posting a .399 average and .859 OPS, Francisco is in the position of needing to take advantage of his opportunities to seize playing time at third base.

Whether he’s pressing to make that happen or not, right now Francisco isn’t helping his cause.