Minor's growth, Medlen's dominance boost rotation
Braves general manager Frank Wren isn't the type to brag. So I'll do it for him.
There was a time this season when plenty of Atlanta fans wanted to pull the plug on Mike Minor. Some of us in the media felt the same way, and we're almost never wrong about these things.
In Minor's first 15 starts, he was 4-6 with a 6.20 ERA. He had just four quality starts. That is, starts of at least six innings and no more than three earned runs. Minor was giving up home runs, too -- 13 of them in 58 innings.
Wren looked at Minor's season from a different perspective. He saw a 23-year-old kid who had loads of talent and just needed some time to figure things out.
Minor began this season with just 13 Major League starts under his belt. He had to learn an array of things, from pitch selection to the locations he could get away with, and more important, those he couldn't.
Wren told everyone to take a deep breath and give Minor some time to grow up. It didn't take long.
"In Spring Training, he and [Kris] Medlen were our best pitchers," Wren wrote in an e-mail, "and Mike did it by pitching aggressively with his fastball and attacking on the inner half to open up the plate for his other pitches. He continued that in the first few weeks of season, then started straying to a more passive approach and pitched poorly in May and June.
"In July, he regrouped and started pitching aggressive again, and has been really good for nearly two and a half months. He is a young pitcher that has matured during the season. We saw how good he could be in Spring Training, and he has now carried it over."
Looking back on it, it's amazing how quickly the light has gone off. In his past 13 starts, Minor has gone 5-4 with a 2.32 ERA. He has 10 quality starts and has allowed just seven home runs in 81 innings.
Scouts marvel at Minor's growth. They say he suddenly has the confidence to pitch inside and to be more aggressive with his fastball.
Combined with the dominance of Medlen, the Braves could hardly feel better about their rotation. When Brandon Beachy got hurt and Jair Jurrjens struggled, Atlanta had plenty of reason to wonder about how things would turn out.
The Braves' 3.04 staff ERA is the National League's best since the All-Star break, and even with an offense that has had its ups and downs, they are sprinting for the finish line filled with confidence.
This weekend's three-game sweep of the Nationals got them to within 5 1/2 games of first place in the NL East. They've got a 7 1/2-game lead in the NL Wild Card race.
After losing 13 of their final 18 -- including their last five -- last season to let a playoff berth slip away, the Braves aren't about to get overconfident.
But their magic number for clinching a playoff berth is down to eight. Last season's meltdown began with an assortment of pitching problems.
This season, thanks in part to Medlen and Minor, Atlanta is still pitching at a high level. Manager Fredi Gonzalez has carefully managed the workload at the back of the bullpen, so Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters should still have plenty left in the tank for whatever is left.
This isn't how the Braves had it mapped out in Spring Training. Back then, they didn't know Beachy would get hurt. They weren't sure if Medlen would spend the entire season in the bullpen or if they'd need him for the rotation.
They weren't even sure if Jason Heyward would bounce back from hitting .227 in 2011. He has done that and has evolved into the middle-of-the-order presence that Wren envisioned.
In short, the Braves are back in the mix for a championship. Last September is a distant memory.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.