Braves’ Minor sharp until four-run 5th inning

JUPITER, Fla. – When Mike Minor struggled in the first three months of the 2012 season, often one lousy inning was the Braves left-hander's undoing. An inning such as the Cardinals' fifth on Thursday.

Minor had allowed one hit and one walk through four crisp innings, but the Cardinals sent 10 batters to the plate in the fifth and four runs, five hits and three walks en route to a 5-4 Grapefruit League win against the Braves at Roger Dean Stadium.

“That’s tough, but you’ve got to get him through those innings,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, who left Minor in for the entire inning, when he threw about half of his 88 pitches. “Other than that (inning) he did a lot of good things. Helped himself with the bat — sac bunt, moved a guy over, drove a guy in. He did a lot of good stuff.”

After allowing one hit in three scoreless innings March 3 against Detroit and three hits in four scoreless innings Saturday against the Yankees, Minor had 11 scoreless innings going before the St. Louis fifth.

Oscar Taveras singled to start the inning but tried to stretch it to a double and was thrown out by left fielder Jordan Parraz (who also went 4-for-4 with two doubles). Pete Kozma followed with a single and scored on a Tony Cruz double.

Minor had faced three batters in the inning and given up three hits, all with two strikes after getting way ahead in counts. Things got worse when he walked relief pitcher Shelby Miller. One out later, Matt Carpenter reached out to hit a breaking ball for a two-run triple to the right-center gap.

Minor also gave up an RBI single by Allen Craig and walked David Freese in the inning, after striking out Freese the first two times he faced him. As the inning wore on, Cardinals hitters fouled off pitches and put together longer at-bats as Minor’s pitch count climbed.

“I felt strong today,” Minor said. “I just kept having to throw over and over and over to the same guys. It kept going because of a base hit, a walk, then I ended up walking the pitcher. I walked Freese, after I’d made good pitches to him all day. I don’t know, maybe I was getting a little tired. It was a long inning.”

Last season after posting a 6.20 ERA and .271 opponents’ batting average in 15 starts through the end of June, Minor had a 2.21 ERA and .193 OA in 15 starts the rest of the way. During the second half, he avoided innings like the one he endured Thursday.

But it was spring training, and Minor is getting ready for the season now, not competing for a spot. His changeup is the pitch he’s worked on least, and there are still 2-1/2 weeks left in a longer-than-usual spring training.

“I’m throwing a lot of changeups down, but that’s a good thing for me,” Minor said. “I’ve just got to work on starting it a little bit higher — but not too much, because you don’t want to hang it. But that’s really the fourth pitch I’ve been working on. I’ve been working on more slider, curveball and fastball location. The changeup will come. And I think we learned last year, I don’t need to use it as much anyway.”

Gonzalez was asked if he was pleased with where Minor was after four spring starts.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I think today is going to benefit him. He got himself in a little trouble there in the fifth inning, and you’ve got to get through it. He’ll be better off for it the next time around. You like to see some adversity a little bit in spring training, because they are going to face that during the season. It could have been very easy for (pitching coach) Roger (McDowell) and I to take him out of the game and only go 45 pitches, but we needed to build his pitch count up and we need to get him through those innings.”