Braves’ A.J. Minter thrives in first professional start

Braves starting pitcher A.J. Minter in action against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series on Friday night in Arlington, Texas. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

A.J. Minter learned he would be the Braves' starting pitcher for Game 5 of the National League Championship Series when he got a Friday morning phone call from manager Brian Snitker.

“(He) called me around 10:30,” Minter said, "and just told me … ‘we don’t know how long you’re going to go; just go out there and get us off rolling in that first inning.’

“That was my goal, just to set the tone.”

What he did under the circumstances exceeded any realistic expectation.

Starting a game for the first time in his professional baseball career, for the first time since he started four games for Texas A&M in 2015, Minter pitched three innings and struck out seven of the 10 Los Angeles Dodgers batters he faced Friday night in Arlington, Texas. He allowed no runs and just one hit.

“I did surprise myself a little bit,” Minter said.

“That was remarkable, what he did,” Snitker said.

“It was incredible,” said Max Fried, the Braves' No. 1 starter. “He was pretty dominant.”

In college, Minter pitched as a reliever in 51 of his 55 games. In the minor leagues, he pitched as a reliever in 77 of 77 appearances. In the major leagues, he had pitched as a reliever in 144 of 144 (including postseason) -- until Friday.

“I was pretty excited to go out there and get the experience starting,” Minter said after the game. “And who knows? Maybe it could be something in the future.”

He became the first pitcher in MLB history to make his first career start in the postseason, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

The remarkable part isn’t that the Braves chose to start Minter, a 27-year-old left-hander. Because of the much-chronicled attrition in their starting rotation this season, they simply didn’t have a traditional starter available for Game 5. And Minter had told Snitker earlier in the season that he was open to starting a so-called bullpen game.

The remarkable part is what Minter did with the unfamiliar assignment.

“When I told him what we were thinking about, I said, ‘Maybe (go) one inning,’” Snitker said before the game. “We’ll see how he gets through one inning. Hopefully he gets through one inning, and maybe he goes out for a portion (of the next inning). It’s uncharted territory for all of us.”

The first inning went very well for Minter: He struck out two batters, pitching around a two-out double by Justin Turner, the only hit he would allow.

In the second inning, Minter retired the Dodgers in order, striking out the last two batters.

He stayed in the game for the third inning and struck out the side, getting Joc Pederson looking on a 95-mph four-seam fastball, Chris Taylor looking on a 94-mph four-seamer and Mookie Betts looking on an 87-mph cutter. That ended Minter’s night with five consecutive strikeouts, tying an NLCS record.

The three-inning outing was the longest of his major-league career. His previous longest was 1-2/3 innings against the Philadelphia Phillies on Aug. 30.

Asked if he could remember the last time he pitched three innings, Minter said: “I do. That was my last start in college. We were playing at Minute Maid Stadium down in Houston … and that was my last college game because that’s when I blew out my UCL and had Tommy John surgery.”

His outing Friday was longer than the Dodgers got from their traditional starter, Dustin May, who lasted just two innings.

Minter’s seven strikeouts were the most in an MLB postseason appearance of three innings or fewer. He threw 42 pitches, 27 of them strikes.

“I just wanted to ... attack one hitter at a time and not really worry about pitch count,” he said. “Just come out and be aggressive.”

The performance continued, albeit in a different role, an outstanding season for Minter, who had an ERA of 0.83 in 22 regular-season relief appearances.

The Braves led 2-0 when he exited Friday’s game, starting a parade of relievers who failed to sustain the tone the improbable starter had set. The 2-0 lead turned into a 7-3 loss that sends the NLCS to Game 6 on Saturday, with the Braves leading the best-of-seven series 3-2.

Next up after Minter was left-hander Tyler Matzek, who allowed a home run to the first batter he faced in the fourth inning, Corey Seager, cutting the Braves' lead in half. Matzek pitched 1-1/3 innings, allowing the one run.

Shane Greene also pitched 1-1/3 innings, leaving with two out in the sixth, a runner on base and the Braves still leading 2-1. The next reliever, Will Smith, walked the first batter he faced, Max Muncy, and then surrendered a three-run homer to the Dodgers' catcher, Will Smith, to put L.A. ahead 4-2 in the sixth.

The Dodgers blew the game open with three runs in the seventh against the fifth Atlanta pitcher, Jacob Webb, who gave up Seager’s second homer of the night, a two-run shot.

So to sum up the Braves’ pitching in Game 5: They got a great outing from their starter, but their relievers struggled.

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