A Padres team on pace for one of the worst offensive seasons in the modern era lit Mike Minor up for five runs on nine hits over five innings one night earlier this month, and this was a time for some honest self-reflection on the part of the Atlanta left-hander.
"I suck," he told manager Fredi Gonzalez.
Make that honest, direct self-reflection.
The Braves, as a whole, needed some of that a week ago, too. There was a reasonable argument to be made that they were basically serving the National League East up to the Nationals on a silver platter -- an odd arrangement, considering the Nats are a team the Braves have handled quite well head-to-head (9-4 this season).
Atlanta went 0-8 on a West Coast road trip and lost 12 of 15 overall from July 29 to August 14. And while it might prove to be too late to recover from that catastrophe, given the way the Nats have played of late, two developments -- involving the two homegrown No. 1 draft picks on this Braves roster -- have at least improved Atlanta's outlook for the home stretch.
The first is that Minor no longer "sucks." At least, he hasn't in two starts since his return from a skipped turn in the rotation, and that's an essential development for a club that needs him to step into a front-line role.
The second is that Jason Heyward, against his own wishes, has rescued the Braves from their abysmal leadoff output.
Let's start with Minor, who, two weeks back, was desperate enough to solicit assistance from his teammates. He wasn't going to ask Craig Kimbrel how to throw 100 mph, and he wasn't going to begin incorporating Julio Teheran's unorthodox grips into his repertoire. But in Ervin Santana -- a man Minor refers to as "Magic" as an homage to that other Ervin -- he saw a reasonable facsimile in terms of action and arm angle. Minor sat next to Santana on the bench one night and began peppering him with questions.
"Hey, how do you throw your slider?" he asked, and Magic showed him.
"How about your curveball?"
Magic obliged again.
"I basically just stole all his pitch grips," Minor said with a smile. "He told me exactly how to throw it, where your fingers should be and where your hands should be when you release it."
Said Santana: "I was watching one of his bullpens, and he was opening his front shoulder too early. That's why every pitch, when he was trying to throw a fastball inside, it ends up in the middle because he was opening too fast. He asked me for help, and I helped a little."
This, ultimately, is an illustration of the true length of the 162-game schedule and the opportunity it affords starting pitchers in their time between trips to the mound. Minor -- who had a 5.42 ERA, .312 average against. .516 slugging percentage against in his first 17 starts this season -- found a way to reinvent himself after several months of failing to admit that his successful 2013 season was proving unrepeatable with his arsenal.
"Sometimes you go back and forth," he said. "You say, 'Well, last year, I was throwing great with the same pitches I have now. So why can't I do that?' But you have to evolve and change, just like a hitter. People find out your weaknesses."
Is Minor fixed? Too soon to tell.
But those minor adjustments made with the help of some Magic have at least changed the tone of the conversation about his season. In two starts since that extended break, he's allowed five runs on 12 hits with just three walks and 14 strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings against two contenders, the Dodgers and A's. He'll take the ball again Friday night in Cincinnati, and the Braves hope his upward trend continues, because a revitalized Minor would sure look good alongside Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Santana and bafflingly resilient Aaron Harang.
It should come as no surprise that, over the course of losing 12 of 15, the Braves rotation was, well, not very good. It had a .273 average against and a 4.15 ERA that was the third-worst in the NL in that span. So getting Minor back in working order goes a long way toward getting that rotation up to speed, too.
None of that matters, of course, if the lineup isn't generating runs. Lately, though, this area is also on the upswing, and that brings us to Heyward.
Signed to a two-year extension in February, Heyward has had an interesting statistical season. His .746 OPS won't inspire any illusions of MVP-type grandeur, yet, among position players, he is second in the NL only to Giancarlo Stanton in Baseball Reference's WAR calculation (with a 6.0 mark) on the might of his range and agility in the outfield.
Heyward's greatest value to this club, though, might be in his ability to add some semblance of dependability and respectability to the leadoff spot. He began the season there, but shifted to the No. 5 spot in mid-June, only to return to No. 1 when the Braves were desperate to get out of that recent rut.
Braves leadoff hitters not named Heyward this year (B.J. Upton, primarily) have compiled a lowly .275 on-base percentage. So while Heyward himself has been more productive batting fifth (.292 average, .782 OPS), his .340 OBP out of the leadoff spot has been essential in getting this offense going. (And interestingly, he's hit nine of his 10 homers as a leadoff man.)
"It's a delicate move, a delicate situation," Gonzalez said. "And he's handled it well. There's really no other options. That's the thing. You wish you had another option. He's the best one, and he's a good option."
It's a delicate situation because it's no secret Heyward doesn't like batting leadoff one bit.
"I was hitting OK in the five-hole," he said. "So to make an adjustment when you're hitting well, it's different. I've batted leadoff before and had some success there. I'm hoping it doesn't take long to get comfortable there, but I'm doing the best I can every day to help the team win."
The Braves swept the A's last weekend, quelling, however briefly, that bleak sense of gloom that had consumed them for most of August. They've still got six head-to-head matchups with the Nats in September, and the NL wild card picture is incredibly forgiving.
So let's not bury the Braves just yet. It's a long way to the fall.