ST. LOUIS -- Mike Minor has spent the past year establishing himself as a legitimate front-line starting pitcher. Along the way, he has indicated he is capable of rising to the occasion when the Braves need him most.
The latest example came Sunday afternoon as Minor provided seven strong innings and benefited from the spark Jordan Schafer gave Atlanta's injury-depleted lineup in a sweep-preventing 5-2 win over the Cardinals.
"It was one of those days today where we needed a win," Minor said. "We didn't want to get swept. But there wasn't any added pressure."
While combining for five runs through the first three games of this four-game set at Busch Stadium, the Braves realized just how frustrating it can be to face the Cardinals without Jason Heyward. Their injury woes were extended late Sunday morning when Chris Johnson was scratched from the lineup with turf toe.
Johnson's absence created an opportunity for Paul Janish to team with Elliot Johnson to serve as the two most surprising contributors for Minor, who scattered six hits over seven innings. The only run he allowed came when Matt Carpenter opened the bottom of the sixth with a double and scored on Matt Holliday's sharp groundout to first baseman Freddie Freeman.
This was Minor's first start since he needed 67 pitches to record five outs against the Nationals in a career-short start Aug. 17. The Braves were planning to let him rest until Tuesday but made an adjustment when Brandon Beachy developed right elbow inflammation. Minor still entered this start with three extra days of rest.
"I think any time you can give a pitcher [extra rest], especially at this point in the year, it's going to be beneficial," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I told him when he walked off, you didn't forget how to pitch. He competes every time out."
Minor's latest outing was similar to the one he produced against the Cardinals on July 26 in Atlanta. The Braves entered that series opener having lost four of their previous seven games and feeling the effects of losing Tim Hudson to a season-ending injury two days earlier. The victory recorded that night marked the start of a 14-game winning streak.
"The [Adam] Wainwrights of the world and the [Clayton] Kershaws of the world stop losing streaks, and they extend winning streaks when you run them out there every fifth day," Gonzalez said. "He's becoming one of those guys."
Despite recording just two wins during this six-game trip that was marred with Heyward sustaining a fractured jaw Wednesday in New York, the Braves still own Major League Baseball's best record. They own a 13-game lead over the Nationals in the National League East, and with 32 games remaining their magic number to clinch is 20.
"You don't want to get swept, especially by a team that will be a playoff team you have the potential of seeing," Schafer said. "You don't want them to have that confidence going into the playoffs. It was a big win for us. We just need to get back to playing good baseball, and we'll be fine."
After not recording a hit or drawing a walk while replacing Heyward as the leadoff hitter in the first three games of this series, Schafer proved to be St. Louis starter Lance Lynn's primary nemesis. He tripled to begin the game and capped a two-run second inning with a ground-rule double.
Schafer's triple set the stage for Johnson's RBI single that marked the start of his second two-hit performance in this series. The infielder, who was claimed off waivers from the Royals on Wednesday, had recorded three hits in his final 59 at-bats with Kansas City.
"Any time you get an opportunity to play, you want to help the team win," Johnson said. "Every day you put forth some production, I think it increases your value. You've got to make the most of the opportunities given to you."
Gerald Laird and Joey Terdoslavich began the second inning with singles. Laird scored on Janish's opposite-field bloop single to right, and Terdoslavich crossed the plate when Schafer went the other way with his double that bounced over the left-field wall.
Andrelton Simmons, Justin Upton and Freeman were the only members of Atlanta's lineup who had started more than 34 games this season. The only hit provided from this group Sunday was Simmons' seventh-inning home run off Lynn, who allowed four runs and nine hits in seven innings.
After the Cardinals pulled within three runs in the eighth with two hits, including Allen Craig's RBI single off Luis Avilan, Gonzalez called upon Craig Kimbrel to record the inning's final out against Yadier Molina. Kimbrel also worked a scoreless ninth to complete his first multi-inning performance and four-out save since Sept. 5.
"I'm ready to do that a lot," Kimbrel said, flashing a smile that had not been seen in the Atlanta clubhouse after the first three games of this series.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.