Minor baffles Cubs in victorious season debut
Justin Upton hits third homer in four games to give Braves early lead
ATLANTA -- Mike Minor experienced an impressive transformation as he endured his final growing pains during last year's first half and then spent the regular season's second half proving to be one of baseball's most successful starting pitchers.
Minor still has plenty to prove over the course of this season. But early indications are that he is ready to pick up where he left off last year.
Provided an early cushion courtesy of Justin Upton's third home run, Minor pitched into the eighth inning in comfortable fashion and helped the Braves claim a 4-1 win over the Cubs on Friday night at Turner Field.
"I'm not going to say I'm going to have a game like this every time," Minor said. "But I had the confidence going into the season that I was going to attack hitters like I did last year."
Upton's first-inning home run off Scott Feldman gave him three home runs in his first 11 at-bats. While homering in three of his first four games with Atlanta, the 25-year-old left fielder has confirmed the belief that he is on a mission to prove the D-backs made a mistake when they traded him to the Braves in December.
"It's even more enjoyable to watch him hit in the [batting] cage," shortstop Andrelton Simmons said. "You just watch and try to pick up stuff from him. He's really talented. He has a nice swing. Everything is nice and smooth. He's going to do this all year."
After Upton's first-inning line drive stayed under a strong wind and easily cleared the left-center field wall, Minor had no trouble preserving his early advantage. The 25-year-old southpaw limited the Cubs to one run on five hits in 7 1/3 innings. He struck out seven and didn't walk a batter.
"He had us off balance early," Cubs outfielder Scott Hairston said. "We were chasing a lot of pitches we normally don't swing at. I think that pitch was very effective for him, that slider in the dirt. He had momentum and we didn't execute tonight."
When Minor entered his start against the Cubs on July 4, he owned a 6.20 ERA and was staring at the possibility of being sent to the Minor Leagues. The six strong innings he completed in that outing marked the start of a 15-start stretch in which he posted a 2.21 ERA.
Minor's former collegiate teammate David Price and current Braves teammate Kris Medlen were the only starting pitchers to compile a better ERA during that stretch.
Benefiting from the confidence he gained last year, Minor was able to spend a portion of the Grapefruit League season toying with a two-seam fastball that will not exit the developmental stage any time soon. While testing it in Florida, he allowed 14 runs in his final 14 spring innings.
But with the arrival of the regular season, Minor went back to what made him successful last year.
Minor opened this season with two strikeouts in a nine-pitch first inning. He pitched around Alberto Gonzalez's one-out double in the third inning and was only harmed by the home run that Hairston hit into the left-field seats to open the fifth inning.
After allowing Dioner Navarro's one-out single in the eighth inning, Minor exited to a standing ovation. He has compiled a 2.05 ERA in his past 16 starts and proven that the Braves were wise to take him with the seventh overall selection of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft.
"He looked really good," Simmons said. "Hopefully he stays just like that. From last year, he has not lost a beat. Hopefully he keeps doing what he's been doing and even gets better."
Upton's third-inning sacrifice fly provided a little more cushion for the Braves, who took advantage of Feldman's control problems in the fifth inning. The Cubs right-hander walked two and hit B.J. Upton with a pitch before Juan Francisco hit a two-out opposite-field single that plated two runs.
Francisco's single provided the Braves a lead and showed that he might no longer be the pull-happy slugger that he often was while serving as Chipper Jones' backup last year.
"I think it was an at-bat where he was just trying to put it in play and not hit it over the scoreboard," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "Now, he's got an opportunity to play a little more. So, maybe he's maturing as a hitter."
Evan Gattis continued to swing the bat well, going 3-for-4. Craig Kimbrel earned the save, striking out one in a scoreless ninth.