Twenty-six months after getting the phone call informing him he was drafted by the Braves, A.J. Minter was on the dialing end of the most emotional call he’d been part of since then.
It was late Tuesday night in Durham, N.C., after Minter was informed by Triple-A Gwinnett manager Damon Berryhill that the hard-throwing left-handed reliever had been called up by the big-league Braves and would join them Wednesday. Minter couldn’t wait to make the first and most important call he had to make, to tiny Whitehouse, Texas.
“Definitely my parents,” said Minter, who’ll turn 24 on Sept. 2. “I called my dad. I was afraid he was going to be asleep. Got the news last night after our game in Durham. Told my dad, ‘I’ve got some bad news. Can’t go to work tomorrow. You’ve got to come watch your son pitch in the big leagues.’
“It was just one of those moments that you dream about your whole life, telling your dad. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him, and thank everyone who’s been a part of my life. Like I said, today is for those people that have helped me get here and not just for myself.”
His mom and dad, who runs a construction company, caught an early-morning flight from Dallas-Fort Worth airport, which is about 1 ½ hours from Whitehouse. They got to Atlanta before noon Wednesday and were to be at SunTrust Park to see their son make his debut, which turned out to be the highlight of the night for the Braves in a 9-6 loss.
Minter struck out the first two batters he faced and pitched a perfect ninth inning, showing no sign of nervousness and displaying the fastball and power slider that make his future so promising.
“He’ll be a guy who’s going to be pitching meaningful innings,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said afterward. “I mean, he’s that guy.... He was fine out there, he was on the attack, his stuff is good – he’ll be a big piece going forward here.”
Minter had a long wait in the bullpen after he warmed up during the Mariners’ long five-run eighth inning.
“But it gave me a minute just to kind of breathe and relax, settle my nerves a little bit,” he said. “I was just ready to get out there.”
Once he got in, he looked like he’d done it plenty of times before. He said any butterflies were gone after he threw his first pitch, and he was thankful he got to pitch in his first day with the team, not wait around.
“Definitely, yeah,” he said. “Parents got to see it, so I couldn’t ask for much more. It was everything you dream about as a kid. It’s your major league debut. Definitely going to enjoy this, but tomorrow’s a new day. It’s just a milestone.
“I don’t want to just be a major league pitcher, I want to be a dominant major league pitcher and help this team win a World Series.”
As he told the story before Wednesday’s game about calling his parents late Tuesday, Minter started to get emotional. This was big stuff. And the thickly built, soft-spoken Texan wasn’t about to play it off or act like Tuesday night and Wednesday weren’t hugely significant to him.
Not after he’d come back from Tommy John surgery in March 2015 while he was at Texas A&M, which dropped him from a likely first-round draft pick to the second round and the Braves with the 75th overall selection. Not after he’d been dominant in his first pro season in 2016 while working on a conservative schedule with multiple rest days between appearances. Not after he put in more work than ever during the offseason in hopes of competing for a 2017 opening-day roster spot on the big-league club, only to see those hopes quashed by a relatively minor elbow injury (inflamed nerves) during spring training.
Not after he was injured again – an adductor (groin) strain – after his first appearance of the season April 11 at Single-A Florida, causing him to miss the next two months of games, which made some wonder when he might stay healthy enough to really get into a rhythm and handle a regular bullpen workload.
“I’m going to enjoy this day, take it all in, and come tomorrow it’s going to start a new journey, a new dream,” he said. “And I’m just looking forward to this career.”
He features a 94-97 mph fastball and “wipeout” slider, the kind of stuff that could set him apart from many lefties and make him a potential future closer. For now, the Braves won’t overwork him, but Snitker hasn’t been given limits on how to use him.
“We’re not going to be able to rough him up yet,” Snitker said. “(But) they started taking the gloves off in Triple-A. He’s not a fragile guy, I don’t think, by any stretch. He’s been getting after it and doing a normal workload, so we should be fine with him.”
Minter struggled at times after he was promoted from Double-A to Triple-A in early July. During one four-appearance stretch over eight days July 16-23, he gave up nine hits and nine runs (six earned) in just 2 1/3 innings. He had been back pitching in games only for six weeks after two months on the disabled list, and he was still honing his mechanics and getting accustomed to pitching on a frequent basis.
“The forearm (in spring training), that was a fluke. (In) just a couple of weeks I needed to rest,” he said. “But when I hurt my adductor, my groin, that was a little bit more strenuous and tedious time that I needed to let it rest and just get the strength back. That’s what took the longest was just getting the strength back.”
But then things started to click for Minter, who went from bad to very good in a hurry. Beginning with a hitless 1 1/3-inning appearance July 24 at Lehigh Valley, the first time he pitched in back-to-back games as a pro, Minter reeled off a nine-appearance stretch through Monday (his last appearance before the call-up) in which he allowed one run and four hits in nine innings, with six walks and nine strikeouts.
He had a .138 opponents’ average and .416 opponents’ OPS in those last nine appearances and a .118 opponents’ average in his six August appearances for Gwinnett. He had five strikeouts with one walk in 2 2/3 innings over his final three appearances before the call from the big club, which came at least a week or two earlier than he expected it might.
“It was definitely a surprise to me,” he said. “I didn’t think it was going to be quite this month, I guess. But definitely blessed to be here.
“This has been a dream. It’s a big chance, it’s emotional. I’m excited. This is what I’ve been working for my whole life, so it’s definitely emotional. But I’m just ready to get out there and get the first pitch out of the way, honestly.”
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