Braves hit four homers, Minor pitches well in win

After falling behind early in far too many games during their long, scorching hot and largely disappointing homestand, the Braves and pitcher Mike Minor got something Thursday that felt even better than cool rain might have. They got a pair of two-run homers in the first inning.

Jason Heyward and Brian McCann each homered in the four-run first, and the Braves cruised to a 7-3 win against the Cubs to salvage a split of their four-game series and avoid a losing record on the homestand. They split it as well, going 5-5.

Minor (5-6) didn't allow a hit until the fifth inning and completely outpitched Chicago's Matt Garza, the veteran right-hander who has been one of the trade-bait pitchers some have speculated could replace Minor or rookie Randall Delgado in the Braves' rotation. Garza (4-7) was abysmal, allowing five runs and three homers in four innings and throwing 44 pitches in the first inning, including 16 to Juan Francisco.

Freddie Freeman added a third-inning homer, and Francisco homered in the eighth for the Braves, who won for just the third time in their past eight games.

Garza's 94 pitches in four innings, including 28 in two plate appearances by Francisco, who fouled off a total of 17 pitches those two times up against the right-hander.

Minor was just 2-5 with a 7.43 ERA in his past 11 starts before Thursday, when he worked 6 1/3 innings and was charged with three hits, three runs (two earned) and two walks with six strikeouts.

It could be one of his last two starts he makes before newcomer Ben Sheets joins the Braves' rotation, which could be soon after the All-Star break. Sheets signed with the Braves last week and made his first minor league start Wednesday, and he's expected to replace Minor or Delgado.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said before the game that he didn't see it as a make-or-break start for Minor, but the left-hander pitched as if he wanted badly to hang on to his spot in the rotation. He didn't give up a hit until Geovany Soto's one-out homer in the fifth inning, and the Cubs didn't have another runner reach second base until the seventh.

After Minor allowed a single and walk to start the seventh, Gonzalez left him in to face All-Star Bryan LaHair. Minor struck him out, an encouraging development for a pitcher who has seen such innings spiral on many other occasions.

Gonzalez then replaced Minor with Kris Medlen, who gave up a two-out single to Reed Johnson that brought in two runs, one of them unearned on Heyward's throwing error.

Minor improved to 4-0 with a 4.30 ERA in four career starts against Cubs. The Braves have scored 28 runs while he's been in those four games against Chicago, including the 2010 game when he set an Atlanta rookie record with 12 strikeouts.

The Braves are among the teams that have expressed some trade interest in Garza, who has great stuff but isn't getting much in the way of results this season. His ERA climbed to 4.28 in 16 starts, including 5.67 in 10 road starts.

With two rows of scouts seated behind home plate pointing radar guns at Garza, he got torched for five runs, five hits and three walks in four innings, with Freeman's solo homer in the third pushing the lead to 5-0.