As the Atlanta Braves close out the regular season and prepare for what they hope will be a run that carries them deep into October, there is a familiar face waiting to do his part in the late innings once again.
A.J. Minter has now been part of all six of Atlanta’s National League East titles, two trips to the NLCS and a World Series title. The lefty’s career encapsulates the evolution of the club, the bullpen, a player, a pitcher, and a person.
Time brings experience and Minter has received no shortage of that during his tenure with the Braves.
“I just had my 30th birthday and it was probably one of my saddest birthdays,” Minter said with a wry smile. “Obviously, you’re turning 30, so no more 20s. And, you know, 30 (years old) in baseball is getting kind of old. I don’t know how I feel about it.”
Though he may not be the proverbial spring chicken, Minter should feel fairly accomplished considering what he has done and what he still brings to the table. He is still firing a mid-90s fastball which he mixes with a cutter and changeup while holding down a key role in Atlanta’s bullpen.
The passage of time also brings other roles and responsibilities, something not lost on Minter.
“It is hard to believe that I’ve been here for so long,” Minter said. “Now that I’m getting older, I’m just trying to savor it, take it all in, and enjoy being around the guys. When you’re young, you’re just doing everything you can just to stay on the team and pitch well, not really enjoying being up here. As you get older, you start to take things in a lot more and you’re trying to help out.”
With the ever-changing nature of a big league bullpen, camaraderie certainly helps.
Atlanta has utilized 31 pitchers over the first 150 games this season, with 17 working in relief. While that means there were lots of new faces, there may be no more close-knit group on a team than the guys who enter the game whenever that bullpen door swings open.
Just as he was welcomed to the group as a young pitcher, Minter is aiming to pay it forward.
“It’s just been a good mixture,” Minter said of the current and past Braves bullpen groups. “All the guys I’ve played with in the past — Will Smith, Darren O’Day, Peter Moylan — a lot of those veterans that took me in and I’m just trying to carry on what they started here.”
Minter’s 2023 season has been a microcosm of his career. He has been forced to overcome some adversity in order to find his form and generate the results Atlanta has grown accustomed to.
After all, we are talking about a pitcher who debuted as a top prospect on a 90-loss team, won the closer’s job, lost it, fought through injuries, bounced back only to struggle again, then be optioned to the minors in the middle of a World Series run, before returning better than ever.
If that sounds like a lot, it is.
Minter stumbled out of the gate this season while serving as Atlanta’s closer, posting a 7.43 ERA over his first 24 appearances. Opponents owned a .308 average and an .805 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) against him over those 23 innings.
In 41 outings since, Minter has a 1.47 ERA with 48 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings. Opposing hitters are batting just .147 with a .492 OPS against the veteran left-hander over that stretch.
“I had a horrible start of the season and felt like things have started to come around,” Minter said. “We’re all kind of hitting our stride right here at the right time... It took us a little bit that first few months of the season, but now we’re starting to come together.”
While the Braves bullpen has taken some lumps in September, it still ranks among the best in Major League Baseball across the board. They have the second-fewest losses, second-most saves, highest strikeout rate, and fourth-best ERA of any bullpen in MLB this year.
The bullpen are but one cog in a much bigger machine, a club with the best record in baseball and World Series aspirations.
This year’s Braves club has a chance to be one of the greatest teams in franchise history, something Minter said they are all cognizant of with the postseason approaching.
“You can kind of tell though that there’s something special to this year,” Minter said. “Just going on the road, I feel like we have a lot more fans showing up to the games. There’s a lot more press and, obviously, all the hype that comes with how well we’ve been doing. But at the same time, as far as the locker room and the guys, it’s just another fun group. It’s just guys that get along super well. I think that’s what makes us special.”
Atlanta has put together quite a few of those groups in recent years. Some, like the 2021 squad, went on the improbable run to win it all. Others, like last year’s team, overcame a slow start and pulled together to erase an incredible deficit, win the division and get back to the postseason.
Minter has seen all types of teams and all types of winning. He believes they all had one common denominator.
“We’re just guys who come in here and enjoy being with each other, hanging out,” Minter said. “Good teams, they hang out with each other. That’s what we excel at. It is a different team than in past years, but what we’ve been doing this year has been special. Hopefully, we just keep it going in the postseason.”
This article first appeared in the Marietta Daily Journal. Find it here.