NEW YORK – The Braves have made bolstering the bullpen a priority before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, preferably with another lefty they can use in the seventh or eighth innings. Presumably they aren’t going to add another starter, barring injury or other unexpected development in the next few weeks.
That means they are going to go with what they’ve got, which is good and could be very good if….
What do you think the if is? It’s not Julio Teheran, who has established himself as an legit ace and should have made the All-Star team to begin with, not as a substitute for Jeff Samardzija after the latter was traded to Oakland in the Al. The if is not Aaron Harang, who has defied skeptics by continuing to pitch well at least four out of five games and has only had two really bad starts all season.
It’s not Alex Wood, who, despite his age and lack of rotation experience, has shown again that he’s ready and capable of a brilliant performance any time he goes out and will produce at least a good to very good one most times.
And even though Ervin Santana was shaky for about six weeks, he’s gotten back on track in his past four starts and particularly his past two, looking much like the guy who was so strong in his initial four starts for the Braves. So he’s not the big “if” to which we refer.
The big one is Mike Minor, who takes a 2-5 record and 4.73 ERA into tonight’s series-opening start against the Mets at Citi Field, and a .301 opponents’ average that includes an alarming .375 by lefty batters, third-highest in the majors league and almost inexplicable for a lefty starter who never had any such problems against lefties before this season.
Minor was supposed to be one of the Braves’ top three starters this season, and after Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy blew out their elbows in spring training Minor became even more of an important piece of the rotation as the only healthy incumbent with more than one full season in the major leagues.
But instead of his formerly reliable self, Minor has picked up where his season went astray in the second half of 2013, and not been a guy the Braves can feel confident about what to expect each time he goes to the mound.
Minor is 0-3 with a 5.21 ERA and .311 opponents’ average in his past eight starts, and he’s allowed nine homers in 46 2/3 innings in that stretch including six homers in 22 1/3 innings over his past four starts. He gave up a pair of two-run homers in his last start Tuesday against these same Mets in Atlanta and left with only one out in the fifth inning (the Braves rallied to win 5-4).
If the Braves are to reach their goals of winning the division and advancing deep into the postseason, I dare say they’re going to need more from Minor, particularly since their only other lefty, Wood, has already pitched more major league innings than he did as a rookie and they can’t be certain what to expect from him in September and beyond as the innings mount.
And as good as Harang has been, the well-traveled veteran’s .273 batting average allowed (fifth-highest in the NL among qualified starters) isn’t typically what you’d expect to have from a pitcher you’d want to count on as one of your top three starters in the postseason.
The Braves need Minor to get back to being the pitcher he was from the beginning of June 2012 until late last August, when he starting giving up a lot more hits, runs and particularly homers.
Minor looked like a budding top-of-the-rotation pitcher while going 22-11 with a 2.89 ERA and .219 opponents’ average in a span of 46 starts from June 1, 2012, through Aug. 25, 2013. He had 241 strikeouts, 72 walks and 28 homers allowed in 287 innings over that period.
That’s what makes his numbers since then hard to comprehend: 2-9 with a 4.53 ERA and .280 opponents’ average in 18 starts, with 104 strikeouts, 30 walks and a whopping 20 homers in 109 1/3 innings.
To his credit he’s not the type to make excuses, but you have to wonder how much of his current problems stem from not being able to work out or throw in January after having emergency urinary-tract surgery. Then he developed shoulder tendinitis from ramping up his activities a bit too much too quickly at the start of spring training, and spent the month of April on the DL.
But Minor pitched well in six of his first seven starts this season after coming off the DL, so it’s hard to say the down time was the cause of his problems. And, of course, there’s the fact of his late-season struggles last year.
I asked a scout what he saw from Minor lately that was different than when he was going good, and he said the lefty’s fastball velocity is the same, still real good, but that he’s throwing his curveball and changeup harder and not getting the same movement on those pitches (and the higher-velocity change makes it less effective when the differential is lessened between the velocity of that pitch and the fastball).
He has a 7.84 ERA and .348 opponents’ average in his past two games, including nine hits, four runs and two homers in 4 1/3 innings against the Mets on Tuesday.
Minor is 4-2 with a 5.14 ERA in 10 career starts against the Mets, including 0-1 with a 6.97 ERA and .391 opponents’ average in his past two. He gave up 18 hits, eight runs and five homers in 10 1/3 innings of those two starts, including four runs and three homers in six innings of a June 20 loss at Citi Field last summer.
He didn’t face David Wright last week, when the Mets third baseman was out seven days with a strained shoulder. Wright, who returned to lineup over the weekend, has a couple of homers (though just a .200 average) in 20 at-bats against Minor.
Minor is 0-1 with a 7.94 ERA in his past three road starts, allowing 25 hits and 15 runs in 17 innings. He had two bad starts at Colorado and Houston on either side of a good one June 20 at Washington.
For the second time in seven days Minor will face Daisuke Matsuzaka, who is 0-3 with a 6.06 ERA in his past three starts, all on the road. Matsuzaka allowed five runs apiece in each of his past two starts, in six innings at Pittsburgh on June 26 and in five innings Tuesday against the Braves and Minor.
“Dice K” – does anyone still call him that? — gave up seven hits and three walks in that loss to the Braves, which dropped him to 1-3 with a 7.88 ERA in six career games (four starts) against Atlanta.
Against Matsuzaka, Freddie Freeman is 3-for-7 with a homer and six RBIs, Andrelton Simmons is 3-for-7, Justin Upton is 2-for-4 with three walks, and B.J. Upton is 4-for-24 with a homer and seven strikeouts.
Matsuzaka is 2-0 with a 1.40 ERA and .111 opponents’ average in 12 home games (three starts), compared to 1-3 with a 5.57 ERA and .252 OA (and .373 opponents’ OBP) in 12 road games (four starts)
Opponents are 3-for-26 (.115) against him with RISP and two outs, and two of those hits were by the Braves last week.
• After Minor: What have other Braves starters for the series done against the Mets? Glad you asked. Tuesday’s Game 2 starter Teheran is 2-0 with a 2.60 ERA in five games including four starts, and 1-0 with a 1.50 ERA in three at Citi Field.
He’ll be followed by Santana, who is 3-0 with an 0.86 ERA in three starts, including a 1.38 ERA in two at Citi Field, and Harang, who is 5-5 with a 4.62 ERA in 12 starts, including a 3.82 ERA in seven at Citi Field.
• For Braves, night is right: The Braves and Mets will play all nights games in this series, which no Brave will complain about. They are 37-23 in night games and only 12-16 in day games.
The record isn’t surprising when you consider how much better they’ve pitched and hit in night games. Their 3.07 ERA in night games is second-best in the NL, behind the Nationals’ 3.01. But the Braves are 10th in the NL with their 3.55 ERA in day games.
In night games Braves hitters are sixth in the NL with a .256 average, ninth with a .312 OBP and tied for seventh with a .395 slugging percentage. Meanwhile in day games, they rank next-to-last in the NL with a .215 average (ahead of the lowly Padres, .189), 11th with a .296 OBP and 13th with a .333 slugging percentage.
In the second leg of this seven-game trip at Chicago, all three games are day games, heading into the All-Star break.
Here are the batting averages and on-base percentages for Braves lineup regulars in day games: Tommy La Stella .341/.429, Andrelton Simmons .265/.308, Justin Upton .256/.340, Freddie Freeman .238/.366, Jason Heyward .216/.358, Chris Johnson .210/.252, B.J. Upton .186/.224, Evan Gattis .157/.232.
Compare that to what they’ve done in night games: Gattis .329/.374, Freeman .318/.393, Johnson .306/.319, Justin Upton .280/.353, La Stella .271/.354, Simmons .264/.301, Heyward .252/.326, B.J. Upton .223/.297.
• Freeman vs. Mets: In 62 games vs. Mets, Freeman has hit .317 (73-for-230) with career-highs in doubles (20), homers (13) and RBIs (53), and has a .391 OBP and .574 slugging percentage.
In 30 games at Citi Field he’s hit .303 (37-for-122) with 10 doubles, five homers, 22 RBIs, .361 OBP and .508 slugging. That’s his most RBIs outside Atlanta and tied with Coors Field for his most homers at any road ballpark.
In his past past 15 games against them, Freeman has hit .407 (24-for-59) with six doubles, four homers, 18 RBIs, .463 OBP and .712 slugging percentage.
The Braves are 28-14 with a 3.07 ERA in their past 42 games against the Mets, including 6-3 with a 2.73 ERA this season. The Braves swept the Mets in Atlanta last week in a series in which every game was decided by one or two runs and the Braves totaled 13 runs and no home runs…. Jason Heyward has hit .189 (20-for-106) in 31 games at Citi Field, though he does have four homers, 21 walks and a .333 OBP.
Here’s a cut from Atlanta’s own Deerhunter, off last year’s excellent Monomania album. Check it out by clicking here.
“SLEEPWALKING” by Deerhunter
I’m not mad about anything
You forced on me a hopeless dream
I’d been looking for one true thing
Too numb to see I’d been sleepwalking
Too horrified to see
When a decade doesn’t get you down
You’re flying now but you’ll come back down
And with both your feet on the ground
You’ll look around, yeah, you’ll look around
Too horrified to see
I’d been looking for some harmonies
Some words to sing that could really bring
The lonely-hearted some company
All the people that were just like me, yeah
When a decade is spent searching
For something time will never bring
Something starts to shut down inside
My body and my tired mind
Too horrified to see
Can’t you see
Your heart is hard now
Your heart is hard now
Can’t you see
We’ve grown apart now
We’ve grown apart now