Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez raised a few eyebrows — at least some virtual ones in the Twitter world — when he sent his “bomb squad” lineup out for a day game Wednesday.
It’s an ironic nickname for some backup Braves who don’t quite have the power cache of the majors’ leading home-run hitter Justin Upton and six-time All-Star Brian McCann, who were out of the lineup for the afternoon game.
But Gonzalez channeled his inner Bobby Cox and stuck to his plan, watching it unfold for a 7-2 victory. He also had a feeling about one hitter in particular, keeping Juan Francisco in the lineup at third base against his former Reds team at a small ballpark.
Francisco launched the first grand slam of his career, and the first by a Brave this season, to break open the game with a shot to the visiting bullpen. Francisco followed Dan Uggla’s lead after Uggla hit a pair of home runs to left field for his 17th multi-home run game and the first since he hit two against his former teammates in Miami on June 5.
“Juan’s got some juice,” Gonzalez said. “And we talked about it a little bit, just get the ball up in the air here — and in any ballpark with his power — but he got a pitch out over the plate with the bases loaded, and it was good to see.”
That Francisco did it against Reds reliever J.J. Hoover, the former Braves farmhand he was traded for, brought it full circle.
The day brought Mike Minor full circle, too. Almost a year since he gave up four home runs in a loss at Great American Ball Park, Minor showed how much has changed. He pitched seven strong innings, allowing one run, on a solo home run by Zack Cozart in his first trip back.
The Braves salvaged a series victory, which was pivotal considering they had to come back from a devastating loss Tuesday night when closer Craig Kimbrel gave up the first back-to-back home runs of his career, with two outs in the ninth inning.
The Braves rested both Kimbrel and Eric O’Flaherty on Wednesday, each of whom pitched in the first two games of the series. They’ll be rested Thursday when the Braves open a four-game series against the defending World Series champion Giants in San Francisco.
“To lose one like we did last night, it’s going to happen,” Uggla said. “Just stinks when it does. It was nice to get out here, and Mikey battled and held them right there and got some late.”
The Braves got seven hits from the top two hitters in the order, three from Jordan Schafer and a career-high four from Andrelton Simmons. Simmons finished the series 8-for-13 (.615) with two doubles, two home runs, four RBIs and one highlight defensive play after another.
“When the last one fell, I was like yeah, that’s my day today,” said Simmons who reached on a well-placed double to right in the ninth, after a hit-and-run single his previous at-bat past where the shortstop had left to cover second.
The last time Minor set foot on the mound at Great American Ball Park, he gave up four solo home runs in a 4-1 loss. The May 21, 2012 start set him on a reformation course, though. And he hasn’t been the same since.
The Reds saw a more seasoned version of Minor on Wednesday, the one that went the second half of last season. He is 13-8 with a 2.93 ERA in 28 starts since then.
“I think the main change from last year would be if things do go bad, I don’t dwell on that and think about that the whole time,” Minor said. “I can move on.”
In that last game pitcher Mike Leake hit one of the four homers off Minor. On Wednesday, with two runners on in the seventh, Minor preserved a 2-1 lead by getting Leake to fly out. Normally someone would pinch hit for a pitcher, especially after he had thrown 98 pitches. But Leake entered the game with 49 hits over the past four seasons, the most for any pitcher.
Leake hit a change-up for the homer last season, and Minor got him with a fastball Wednesday, on his 117th pitch of the game — a career-high.
“Yeah I wasn’t going to throw him a change-up,” Minor said, smiling.
Evan Gattis gave Minor a big lift in the second inning. Playing only his third major league game in left field, he gunned down the speedy Brandon Phillips trying to score on a fly ball to left field. Gattis converted a double play to help Minor out of a bases-loaded nobody-out jam.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had the opportunity before today to throw somebody out at home,” Gattis said. “So it was sweet.”