A.J. Minter thriving in closer role, just as Braves hoped

When Arodys Vizcaino went down, the Braves bullpen undoubtedly took a hit. It needed players to “step up,” as the cliché goes. And A.J. Minter has.

The lefty assumed closer duties when Vizcaino went down with right-shoulder inflammation. All he’s done since is fortify the belief that he deserves to be the Braves’ full-time closer.

Minter, 24, recorded his seventh save Thursday night, striking out two Mets in a hitless ninth that preserved a 4-2 win. His seven saves are the most by a rookie left-hander since Chris Sale had eight for the 2011 White Sox.

Sale’s transition to starter isn’t in Minter’s future, but regularly finishing games probably is. Minter has thrived when it’s mattered most, even if some of the outings haven’t been without some extra excitement.

“It’s been another level, going from Double-A to Triple-A, Triple-A to now,” Minter said. “Those first couple weeks, it’s like, ‘Man, I can’t believe I’m here.’ Now it’s just another day at the ballpark. So you get a routine and more experience helps.”

The Texas A&M product has never relinquished a lead in his brief major-league career. He’s 7-for-7 in save opportunities and 16-for-16 in holds.

He’s relished the pressure moments. Manager Brian Snitker sprinkled in late-game opportunities for Minter, a slow effort to get his feet wet.

But when Vizcaino went down, baptism by fire was necessitated. The team initially planned to split closer duties between Minter and Dan Winkler, but the lefty quickly took control of the role.

“I think he really likes it,” Snitker said. “He likes that edge and what that inning is. As you watch him out there in some of those situations, when he starts reaching back, the stuff’s closer stuff. No doubt about that. He’s done nothing but cement the fact he can do that job.”

Minter’s already making history: His 23-game streak of successful saves plus holds is the third longest in franchise history. He’s within close range of Luis Avilan’s and Greg McMichael’s record of 27. He’s held the opponent scoreless in 18 of his past 20 appearances, earning a 1.96 ERA since June 12.

The Braves had seen many of their prospects explode in 2018. Minter has been a tad under the radar, a combination of relievers being overlooked and more high-profile players flourishing.

If the Braves are going to make the postseason, however, the bullpen must provide stability. The team added Jonny Venters and Brad Brach to that unit at the deadline, a step in the right direction.

Minter’s aware of their importance. He welcomes the responsibility on their shoulders.

“For us, we don’t put too much pressure on ourselves,” he said. “It’s coming down to crunch time, and we know that. We’re not going to ignore that and we’re going to accept the challenge. But we’re just having fun more than anything.

“Of course you want to win. You want to do everything you can to win. And we’re ready to start playing that way, play like we deserve to be in the postseason. We’re going to do everything we can as a bullpen staff to finish these games out.”

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