CINCINNATI – Three weeks ago Mike Minor was extremely frustrated and even dismayed, wondering what he could do to get his disappointing season turned around so he could help instead of hinder the Braves’ playoff chances.
On Friday night, he came within four outs of throwing a no-hitter against the Reds, at the most hitter-friendly ballpark in the major leagues. He pitched brilliantly and got no decision, but Justin Upton made sure Minor got to savor victory by launching a towering two-run homer in the 12th inning to lift the Braves to a 3-1 win.
“It would have been a shame for him to lose that one,” Upton said. “He pitched way too well. So we finally came back and got it.”
Upton’s 25th homer — and 85th and 86th RBIs — sent the Braves to their seventh win in eight games and 10th in 15 games since an 0-8 road trip. He’s 19-for-46 (.413) with five homers and 20 RBIs during a 13-game hitting streak.
“That’s awesome,” Minor said. “Because we could have been playing all night — we could have lost — and Justin came up big, like he’s been doing all year.
“We’re all clicking right now. Offense, defense, pitching, you name it. Let’s go have a good time.”
The Braves left 12 runners on base, including at least one in eight of 11 innings, before Freddie Freeman drew a one-out walk in the 12th and Upton followed him and connected with an 0-1 split-finger fastball from Manny Parra, sending a moonshot of a homer to the left-field seats.
“You always want to be in that situation,” Upton said. “You want to be a part of the win. Freddie got on, and the rest is history I guess.”
Minor dominated the Reds into the eighth, allowing one hit, one run and four walks with five strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings,, and five Braves relievers pitched 4 1/3 innings of one-hit ball to complete the 12-inning two-hitter. Craig Kimbrel working around a two-out walk in the 12th and struck out Skip Schumaker with a runner at second base to collect his 38th save.
Minor was replaced after Billy Hamilton broke up the no-hitter with a two-out flare of a single to shallow center field that tied the score, 1-1. The pitcher, who has turned in three consecutive quality starts since having his rotation turn skipped in early August, got a standing ovation from Reds and Braves fans alike in a crowd of 31,160 at Bank One Ball Park.
Though he was four outs from throwing a no-hitter, Minor insisted that wasn’t his focus due to the score and the Braves’ position in the standings. They’re six games behind National League East leader Washington and a game behind San Francisco for the second NL wild-card spot.
“It was about the fourth inning when I noticed there was no hits up there, but I think my main concern was the 1-nothing game,” Minor said. “I felt like, hey, come on, let’s get one more (out), let’s get one more. That’s what contributed to the walks — kind of pitching around guys because it wasn’t really the no-hitter, it was more the 1-nothing game and I feel like we need to win every game right now.”
He did everything in his power to make it happen. It was a resounding performance by the left-hander, who retired the first 10 batters of the game and allowed only one runner to reach second base before the eighth inning.
“He was outstanding,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “Took a no-hitter to the eighth inning. His command was outstanding. His stuff was electric. He’s rattled off three (good starts) in a row now. He’s carrying that momentum and confidence, you can see it building with every start, every pitch. It was an excellent start.”
Minor walked Zack Cozart with one out in the eighth, and the runner advanced to second on a groundout before Hamilton dumped his game-tying single beyond the reach of shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who sprinted as hard as he could trying to get to it. Minor was replaced by Jordan Walden after throwing 64 strikes in 107 pitches.
Third baseman Chris Johnson made two sensational plays for the last two outs of the eighth, preventing a run from scoring when he dove to his left to stop Todd Frazier’s slow bouncer and got up to make a strong throw that beat the runner by a half-step. The speedy Hamilton had rounded third and would have scored if Frazier beat Johnson’s throw.
The Reds had a chance to win it in the 11th after Hamilton hit a one-out single against reliever David Hale, then stole his third base of the game and 49th of the season. The Braves had Hale intentionally walk Frazier at that point to set up a potential double play. Brandon Phillips followed by hitting a high pop fly that looke like it might fall for a hit in shallow left-center, but center fielder Emilio Bonifacio covered a lot of ground to make the catch in full stride.
“I thought our club played really, really well today,” Gonzalez said. “I mean, all of them. Up and down the line, even some of the guys coming off the bench, they busted their butts out there today. For Mikey – everybody knew he had the no-hitter going – and for the win.”
With the Braves fighting for a postseason berth, Minor came through with his best performance of the season at a most opportune time.
“Huge,” veteran catcher Gerald Laird said of Minor’s potential impact. “We know how good he is, we saw it all last year and the year before. This guy was one of our top-of-the-rotation type guys. Obviously he didn’t get off to the start he wanted, but I kept talking to him about it and said you could erase that first half of the season with a good down-the-stretch run, and his last couple of outings have been great.
“Getting him going could definitely help us get where we need to be, and that’s postseason.”
He went 11 days without pitching when his rotation turned was skipped in early August. Minor spent the time working with pitching Roger McDowell and with veteran pitcher Ervin Santana, who showed him a new grip for his two-seam fastball (sinker) and one for his slider. Minor said both pitches are better now because of it.
“They weren’t much different, so I went to the bullpen the next couple of weeks (to work on the pitches) and they came pretty naturally and got more movement,” Minor said. “So I guess I can kind of throw a little bit of my success on him for showing me the little things.”
This is the story of a midseason correction of dramatic proportions.
Minor had a 7.33 ERA, .357 opponents’ average and 12 homers allowed in 54 innings in 10 starts through Aug. 1. In three starts since, he has a 2.53 ERA, .176 opponents’ average and two homers allowed in 21 1/3 innings.
Still, there had been nothing in his previous two starts to suggest that this level of performance might be just around the bend. Especially not at the bandbox that is Cincinnati’s ballpark, where Minor allowed four homers in six innings in a May 2012 game.
“I felt like this the last three games,” Minor said, “but Gerald was putting down some good signs and we mostly just stayed with two-seam fastballs. I don’t think we threw a slider until the fourth or fifth inning, and we threw two changeups all night. So it was mostly just two-seamers and curveballs. We just tried to see if they’d make an adjustment. That’s why I got a lot of ground balls and some weak-hit (balls) there, and a couple of balls I left over the middle of the plate still got caught, luckily.”
The Braves took a 1-0 lead in the third inning on a bases-loaded groundout by Tommy La Stella, with shortstop Cozart’s diving stop on the play preventing at least one more run from scoring. The Braves stranded nine runners in the first six innings, going 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position in that span.
They loaded the bases in the third on three consecutive one-out singles, including one by Upton to extend his hitting steak.
They also loaded the bases with in the second inning on Simmons’ two-out double and consecutive walks issued by Reds starter Mat Latos, who intentionally walked Laird and then most unintentionally walked Minor. Jason Heyward broke his bat on a groundout to end the inning.