ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- While advancing in the standings seems to be a game of red light, green light for the Cardinals, they can take solace in the fact their starting pitching has largely rounded into form.
While Adam Wainwright has been the most eye-catching turnaround, Monday’s starter Mike Leake has quietly been on fire since the start of June.
The 28-year-old has thrown 48.2 innings since his June 7 start and spent that time striking out 45 hitters while walking just three. That 15 K/BB ratio was bolstered by his 11-strikeout, no-walk performance against the Padres Monday, a game in which he allowed one run and finished six innings on 88 pitches.
“I’m trying to attack and I’m trying to get a few more strikeouts. I think that’s helping,” Leake said of his recent run. “It’s all kind of coming together a bit. I’m able to put the ball where I want a little better than I was earlier in the season.”
Leake was masterful on the edge of the zone all night, tagging the outer reaches of the plate with his entire repertoire and finishing at bats by making hitters decide quickly whether or not to swing.
“We talk about him as a guy who just pounds the zone and gets a lot of ground balls, but he was so good on the corners today,” Manager Mike Matheny said afterward. “He was painting. Some of those calls, [hitters] thought they weren’t on the plate, but you go look at it and he’s right there. He was throwing darts today.”
His breaking ball has been razor sharp his last few outings, taking a swooping arc toward the plate and dodging the barrel of opposing bats so effectively it appears sentient at times. The ASU grad said he’s felt his strength increase as the season has gone on, and has worked hard to bring the release point of his breaking ball in line with his other pitches.
“I think the shape of it is getting better. Where I’m releasing it, it might be a little more deceptive. It might be tougher to see,” he said.
The Padres had the same trouble the Brewers did the last time Leake took the mound. Over his last two starts he’s struck out 21 hitters without a free pass, the first Cardinal pitcher to post back-to-back starts with 10 strikeouts or more and no walks since Bob Gibson.
While neither lineup is in danger of catching Murderer’s Row, the results have been a marked change for Leake, who has largely been known to pitch to contact. In the 189 starts prior to his last two, he had only two games with double-digit strikeouts. He know has four in 191.
While Leake’s ERA is now a flat 4.00, a good part of his struggles this season can be chalked up to poor defensive play behind him.
Despite his lack of walks and increased strikeouts, his ERA from June 7 up until Monday was 4.64. His Fielding Independent ERA (a measure of what a pitcher’s ERA would be if he experienced league average results on all balls in play) was 3.01. Essentially, FIP tells a truer story of how a pitcher has performed. If they have a world-class defense behind them, their ERA might be low, but their FIP would be high. After all, a league average defense wouldn’t make all the same plays, so they’d have a tougher time.
The story Leake’s numbers tell is one of a pitcher performing far better than traditional measurements indicate. He’s been steadily effective and, of late, one of the best three pitchers the Cardinals have.
The Californian doesn’t have the same electricity as Carlos Martinez or the stoic magnetism of Adam Wainwright, which makes his recent stretch of dominance easy to overlook. He’s reserved on the mound, quiet in front of cameras and prefers a soft smile to a piercing glare.
But he’s been a rock for St. Louis recently, offering quality starts to a team that desperately needs consistent performances.
The only drawback to Monday’s start was his abbreviated outing, clipped short by a pinch hitter in the sixth inning.
With two men on and no one out, Matheny went to the bench for a bat. At the time it was a 2-1 St. Louis lead, and the manager felt he had to take a shot.
“It was a tight spot in the game. It was what he wanted to go with. I would have gone, I would have kept going, but in that situation you want to take your chances with first and second,” Leake said.
The manager admitted if there weren’t two men on he may have let Leake hit, giving him a chance to break his career high strikeout record of 12 in the next inning. Instead, Matt Adams eventually stood in and belted a two-run double. From there, the dam was broken and the Cardinals went on to a 10-2 victory.