ATLANTA -- In front of a sold out Turner Field crowd, Mike Minor tightened his grip on the title of Atlanta's de facto No. 1 starter by allowing less than four runs for a fourth consecutive outing, and the Braves held on to an early lead to take Friday night's series opener, 4-1, in a battle of first-place teams.
Atlanta leads the National League East Division by 8 1/2 games over Washington and 9 games over Philadelphia. The NY Mets trail by 10 1/2 games.
The Braves are still evaluating how their starting rotation will look without Tim Hudson to serve as a steadying presence down the stretch, but Minor's dominant performance on Friday night may have provided some clarity.
Given the electric venue, the Braves' injury-riddled week and the quality of opponent, Minor's performance had the makings of a coronation, the team's big-game pitcher of the future rising to the moment in the wake of a demoralizing injury to one of the longest-tenured and most well-liked Braves of the past decade.
Minor's RBI single off St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright gave the Braves the lead for good in the second inning, and he turned in his third straight outing of seven innings or longer to help that slim lead stand up. Minor allowed one run on four hits over seven innings to pick up his 10th victory of the season.
St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina capitalized on one of Minor's early mistakes, ripping the first pitch he saw, a belt-high change-up, out to center field for his eighth home run of the year to give the Cardinals an early 1-0 lead in the top of the second inning.
Brian McCann got things started for the Braves in the bottom half of the inning with a double to right field and came around to score on Chris Johnson's RBI single into left. Johnson has recorded a hit in all but two of his 21 games played in July, and his 2-for-3 night on Friday raised his batting average to .345 this month.
Then Minor swung at the first pitch he saw from Wainwright and found a hole in the left side to record his fifth RBI this season. While Minor proceeded to turn the screws on the St. Louis offense, retiring 10 straight batters at one point, Jason Heyward made it a 3-1 game with an opposite-field solo shot in the fifth inning, his first home run since July 6.
Heyward made his defensive presence felt in his first game back in right field with a handful of hard-charging catches, including a diving snag of a line drive off the bat of David Freese in the fifth inning.
The Braves padded their lead in the seventh thanks to a rare error from the team that has committed the fewest in the National League. Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma threw a potential double-play ball low and wide of Matt Carpenter at second base, and the ball bounced into right field and rolled all the way to foul territory, allowing Johnson to score from first easily.
Minor now leads the Atlanta rotation in innings pitched, ERA, fewest hits allowed, strikeouts and wins. His most recent gem came against a potential playoff opponent that sent its Cy Young candidate to the mound on Friday night and proved quite the confidence boost for the banged-up Braves, who have yet to win consecutive games since the All-Star break. Still, the Braves will hold off on the superlatives with the hope that Minor's best is yet to come in the second half.
--- Source: MLB.com