Three Cuts: Astros get to erratic Minor, deny Braves sweep

Mike Minor came into 2014 allowing more than four earned runs three times in his previous 54 starts. He's done so three times already this season.

Pat Sullivan/AP

With manager Fredi Gonzalez’s oft-discussed goal of simply winning series, the Braves can leave Houston feeling victorious.

But amid a closing stretch before the All-Star Break that includes 17 more games vs. teams in last or next-to-last in their division, Thursday’s 6-1 loss to the Astros cost Atlanta its first three-game winning streak in more than a month.

Here are three observations from the series finale:

Listed in the Braves’ daily game notes when Mike Minor pitches is this nugget:

That lofty spot, which sees him trailing only the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Johnny Cueto and Madison Baumgarner, had many thinking that Minor could be the next Atlanta player in line for a contract extension. That could still happen, but the Minor that has made 11 starts this season hasn’t been as consistently effective as he’s been since mid-July of two years ago.

The left-hander came into 2014 allowing four runs or more in just one of his previous 54 starts, but Thursday made it three times this year as he gave up five runs, three on Matt Dominguez’s fifth-inning home run. In all, Minor (2-5) gave up seven hits, striking out five and walking two. It was also the fourth straight start in which Minor has allowed at least one homer, and in all over that stretch he’s yielded five HRs.

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There have been strong moments, including seven innings of one-run ball on May 29 vs. the Red Sox; 10 strikeouts and one run allowed on June 4 against the Mariners; and his last outing, in which he fanned 11 and gave up just two runs last Friday in Washington.

What’s been behind Minor’s up and down year? To put it simply, it looks to be his fastball placement.

Dominguez drove a four-seamer that Minor hung up in the strike zone to the left-center field seats, marking the eighth home run that Minor has allowed to come on the fastball. It’s played into a ballooned fastball runs above average of minus-11.7. That number rested at 9.6 and 9.5 in 2014 and ’13, respectively, and has never been this low in his five major league seasons.

Minor’s control hasn’t been bad — he threw 69 of his 103 pitches for strikes Thursday, a rate of 66 percent that’s above the MLB average of around 62 — and with a 64 percent rate on the season, he’s in the top 50 in baseball. But Minor has been more hit or miss than at any point since April 8-May 16, 2012, when he gave up 37 runs in 47 innings, resulting in a 4.65 ERA over his last 10 starts.

Amid the shared chances of Tommy La Stella and B.J. Upton over the last seven games, something had been missing for the Braves at leadoff: early production.

Upton provided it, singling to start things off, then he stole second — that gave him 12 on the year, equaling his output from a year ago — and would score via a sacrifice fly from No. 2 hitter La Stella.

It was the first leadoff hit by the Braves since June 10, a span of 15 games and it also gave Upton a hit in his third straight vs. the Astros. Added with his brother Justin’s continued hot streak, as he went 2 for 3 to make him 4 for 10 with two home runs and a double in the series, and the Bros. Upton produced their most consistent three-game set in more than a month.

B.J. and Justin each had at least one hit in each game in Houston, marking the fourth time they’d done so in a series this long, but it hasn’t happened since April 25-27 against the Reds.

Jason Heyward, based on his overall numbers since becoming the No. 1 hitter last season, has proven the Braves most dependable option at the position. Performances like Thursday show why B.J. Upton is such an alluring option at leadoff and, as much as it sometimes seems forced to tie the play of one Upton with the other, finding another consistent piece offensively when his brother is in one of his hot streaks is an added bonus, one that B.J. delivered vs. Houston.

Coming into Thursday, bench player Ryan Doumit was the only Brave who had ever faced Houston starter Jarred Cosart, going 0 for 3. He has company in that department as four Atlanta players went hitless as Cosart (8-5) allowed six hits in seven innings, striking out two with two walks.

The Braves went 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position, and outside of B.J. Upton in the first inning and Chris Johnson in the fifth, they never put a runner past second base as Cosart won his fourth straight start. That included his final inning, one in which the Braves looked ready to pounce after an Evan Gattis double and Heyward walk to open the seventh. But Cosart responded, retiring Justin Upton, Johnson and Andrelton Simmons in order.

It was all par for the course for Cosart, who has a 2.11 ERA when facing an opponent for the first time.