Three Cuts: Minor strong in return, but Braves fall to Dodgers
ATLANTA -- The last time the Braves lost five straight in a single season against the Dodgers, All-Stars Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Julio Teheran weren't even born yet.
Atlanta reached that dubious number Tuesday as the bats couldn't provide enough offense to support a strong return to the rotation from Mike Minor in a 4-2 loss.
It was Los Angeles' first five-game winning streak in the series since taking six in a row from April 7-10 and 15-16, 1988.
For the Braves it marked their 11th loss in the last 13 games and the 13th time in 24 games since the All-Star break they have scored two runs or less, going 1-12 in that stretch. Atlanta now sits five games behind the first-place Nationals in the National League East and one ahead of the third-place Marlins.
"Everybody wants to do well, everybody wants to get the hit, wants to pass the torch, take the walk and move somebody over or what have you," said Atlanta right fielder Jason Heyward who went 1 for 4. "Sometimes those situations don't come about and you have to go up there and get a hit. You have to press ... It takes the big hit."
Here are three thoughts from Turner Field:
It had been 11 days since Mike Minor last pitched, with a move to the bullpen never materializing in innings for the struggling left-hander. While one start doesn't erase any concerns about Minor, this one can only be seen as a potential building block.
"I felt like I turned a corner a little bit," Minor said. "Just the way I felt, pitches the way they were breaking, mechanically and getting on the mound and throwing strikes."
Minor struck out Carl Crawford on three pitches -- culminating in an 82-mph knuckle curve -- and through the first two innings, he had more K's (four) as he had in two of his last three outings (one each).
He threw 6 2/3 innings, allowing three earned runs and a walk and for the third time in 11 games he didn't give up a home run.
"I can't wait until the next start, because he pounded the strike zone with his fastball and he threw a couple nice off(speed) breaking pitches," said manager Fredi Gonzalez. "That was a really good outing. A solid outing."
Minor (4-8) did run into trouble, first in the second inning when he hit Los Angeles shortstop Justin Turner in the back with a 92-mph four-seam fastball. Three batters later the Dodgers turned it into a run with a Darwin Barney single.
He then went down 3-0 to opposing pitcher Dan Haren but rebounded, striking him out to end the inning.
The Dodgers got to Minor in the fifth as he gave up a single to Haren and a double to Crawford that Yasiel Puig turned into a run on a groundout to make it 2-2. A batter later the Dodgers took over for good with a Matt Kemp single.
Again, Minor got back on track, striking out three of the final men he faced before being pulled with Puig coming to the plate with a runner on and two outs.
Using Bill James' Game Score he registered a 52, his best effort post All-Star break, but it was overall it was ninth among his 18 starts. It was better than the Minor we saw for most of the last month, the one who had been hanging his four-seamer. But it was that pitch that resulted in four of his seven strikeouts and one that he and catcher Evan Gattis saw an opportunity to set up with some breaking balls that in their pregame routing were noticeably strong.
The question as to whether Mike Minor has returned to form will take more than one start to answer. Tuesday was as much progress as the Braves could have hoped for after removing him from the rotation.
For a team that ranks 29th in the majors in runs per game at 3.72, it's imperative to take advantage of whatever breaks are given.
The Braves did just that in the third inning with Justin Upton hitting a two-out RBI double that came via an assist from Puig. The ball bounced in front of the diving Dodgers center fielder, then hit off his glove, careening toward third base.
But it was the only break that Atlanta could turn into runs on a night that offered its chances.
There was leadoff man Emilio Bonifacio reaching safely on a wild pitcher after a strikeout (the second this season for a team that has struck out over 1,000 times), but Bonifacio followed by getting caught stealing batter later.
There was all 6-foot-4, 260 pounds of Evan Gattis legging out an infield hit, and while the Braves would load the bases, the threat ended with Minor popping out in foul territory.
B.J. Upton's struggles in a Braves uniform are well documented, but over his career there's been one constant: he knows how to do damage against Haren.
Upton launched an 83 mph splitter into left field for a solo home run in the fourth inning, marking the sixth HR he's hit off the right-hander. That total is three more homers than Upton has hit off of anyone else (Jon Lester and CC Sabathia with three each).
In 38 career plate appearances vs. Haren, Upton is now 11 for 37 with six RBI and Tuesday also saw his first walk in their matchups as he was pitched around in the second inning to load the bases and get to Minor.
Despite that level of success, the homer was actually Upton's first hit against Haren since joining the Braves. He was 0 for 5 last season and 1 for 10 the last two years, with that lone hit -- a HR -- coming in '12 when he was with the Rays.
His latest deep ball off Haren was meaningful, and not just for helping those career figures. Upton is now 3 for 7 (.428) in three games hitting eighth. It's a miniscule sample size, but given the overall resume this season, it's a welcomed positive development.