"Thank goodness for Mike Leake" is not something many St. Louis Cardinals fans envisioned hearing this summer.
After a complicated and ultimately ineffective 2016 season, Leake's fanbase in St. Louis dwindled due to the high-dollar contract he signed and the pressure dropped on his shoulders heading into the 2017 season. Two starts into the campaign, Leake is quickly turning heads.
After the Washington Nationals had their way with the Cardinals starters and the bullpen in 14-6 and 8-3 beatings, Leake closed the wound and sent the redbirds to New York with a mild case of optimism. Five days after seeing his eight-inning effort against the Cincinnati Reds go to waste, Leake's seven innings of shutout ball this afternoon gave the team a big lift.
It was vintage Mike Leake on the mound — nine groundball outs, only one walk, and a healthy amount of strikeouts. Since he doesn't throw 100 mph like some starters, Leake has to mix in a little Houdini work on the mound to control bats, which means he seizes the day or loses it on location. Leake was putting the ball wherever he wanted it, and it kept the Nationals hitters off balance for the majority of the afternoon. After needing just 94 pitches to dispose of the Reds, Leake needed 104 on the road in Washington.
Everything was down in the zone or sweeping away from hitters, which is a comfort platter for the pitcher. After pounding on Lance Lynn the night before, Daniel Murphy had nothing against Leake, and it was spreading around the entire lineup. The first two Nationals reached base, and then Leake retired 19 straight.
Although it's only a pair of starts in a long season that sends a healthy arm on 32-33 different trips to the hill, remember that the Nationals and Reds each had Leake's number in 2016. In one start in Cincinnati last year, Leake allowed a barrage of home runs and six runs in a single inning. The next start, the Reds had their way with the right-hander at Busch Stadium. He had no juice against his former team in 2016, but he dominated them on Friday night.
Saving the day wasn't supposed to fall on Leake's shoulders, but he did his best to turn losing ways against the Cubs around last week, and today he threw the cape on his back again to wash away a horrid taste heading out of the nation's capital.
It wasn't just his work on the mound that set the tone; Leake was able to work his swagger off it as well. He picked off his fourth runner in the past year, and fielded his position like Greg Maddux in his heyday. In fact, during the first with two runners on, Leake single-handedly shut the Nationals down by picking a runner off base, striking the man at the plate out, and inducing a groundout back to himself.
While the shaky bullpen created some minor fireworks in the eighth inning, the lead was preserved, and the Cardinals won 6-1, bringing their record to 3-6 as a series against the Yankees awaits. Leake's next start will come against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday at Busch Stadium. How long can he keep this new streak of pitching going? It would be nice for Leake's mound turnaround to not have to play hero next week.
- The Cardinals don't have a typical cleanup guy, but that doesn't mean Stephen Piscotty can't slowly come to own the spot. His five RBI helped the team overcome Max Scherzer, and his steady bat could propel a lineup. Piscotty's bat is just as important as Dexter Fowler or Matt Carpenter's lumber work.
- Eric Fryer getting a start was a smart move from Mike Matheny, thus giving Yadier Molina back to back off days.
- Putting Matt Adams back in left field was a bad move on Matheny's part, and it doesn't matter if the reformed baseball player didn't have a faceplant in left this time. He shouldn't be out there for a team stressing defensive turnarounds.
- Brett Cecil didn't exactly get the best of Bryce Harper (a line drive snarled by Jedd Gyorko), but it didn't leave the park, so there's that. Slow progress.
- Seung-hwan Oh looked better as well after a pair of shaky outings. With the Cardinals relying on their bullpen mightily this year, their sink or swim ability will be the key to several close games.
Hey, at least the Cards bats didn't go completely ice cold in the series, edging out at least seven hits in every game.
While claiming it's early is quite alright, the Cardinals need to show they can play cleaner baseball this weekend and not give up bases and outs due to bad fundamentals. Before you hit the panic button, give the group six weeks to round into form, or confirm mediocrity.