Mike Leake gave the Cardinals exactly what they needed Monday: A chance.
Sometimes, a team will lose a game because the offense goes lifeless for an evening. Occasionally–and stop me if you’ve heard this one before–a bullpen will inherit a lead and find a way to blow it late, leading to losses of a more gut-wrenching variety. St. Louis fans are also familiar with losses caused by defensive woes or fundamental folly; if there's a creative way to lose a game, the 2017 Cardinals have probably found it.
One element of a game that can limit the possibility of a breakdown elsewhere is effective starting pitching, which Leake provided in an 8-2 Cardinals win over the Rockies at Busch Stadium Monday.
“Just putting a W on the board really means the most,” Leake said. “It helps with the team–when you’ve lost two and you win one, winning is always better.”
Prior to Monday, it was Christmas in July for Leake’s opponents, as they lit him up like he was the tree for 17 runs in 10.2 innings for the month. Fortunately for Leake’s ERA, only 9 of those runs were earned; but they still counted nonetheless. The damage incurred sent the Cardinals to losses in each of his three July starts, as Leake accelerated his month-by-month regression on the year.
After shining in April for a 1.35 ERA and 25 to 5 K to BB ratio, Leake had slowly slipped in May (3.09 ERA) and June (4.30 ERA) before imploding with a 7.59 ERA in July, which again, factoring in the unearned runs, was still somewhat forgiving.
Leake turned it around against Colorado, striking out six and walking none over the course of seven shutout innings. The difference in success verses previous difficulties is a matter of vigilance for the details of his game, which was much strong in Monday’s win.
“I’ve got a pretty good feel,” Leake said. “I’m a visual learner so I try to pay attention and watch things.”
Even after Leake’s win, the season is on the brink. Trailing just four games in the division after Monday, but sitting fourth in the Central standings, the Cardinals need every start from every pitcher to be a competitive one–the other facets of the club endanger enough wins on their own. For St. Louis to have any chance to mount a charge into the postseason, the rotation has to be what it was early in the season when it performed as the most potent group in the league.
The problem is, the wisest moves for the Cardinals to make might actually stand to weaken their starting pitching. It’s likely already too late for John Mozeliak and Mike Girsch to spend their days leading up to the trade deadline pursuing moves strictly to the betterment of the 2017 club–too many warts have been exposed for such a strategy to be prudent. Decisions that could hinder the fading hopes of the current contingent–moving Lance Lynn or Trevor Rosenthal for younger, more controllable pieces, for instance–are the decisions the Cardinals front office should be considering. That can be a difficult prospect for the players left behind on a team still in contention, but not deemed worthy of the benefit of a shot in the arm.
Whether the Cardinals go into sell mode or not, Leake will surely be one of the players that remain when all is said and done. His contract has three years left after 2017, and it would seem unlikely that his name would come up in trade conversations, even should the Cardinals consider a more substantial teardown of the current roster than is anticipated.
If August arrives and St. Louis swaps out Lynn for Luke Weaver, it will be that much more important for holdovers like Leake to maintain competitive starts.
If the Cardinals do make those sensible sales on short-term assets, failure to reach the playoffs for the second year in a row might feel like a foregone conclusion. More outings like Leake’s Monday are going to have to be the baseline for any semblance of hope that would remain.
Though plenty of season remains, the grind could become an increasingly uphill battle depending on how the Cardinals handle their pitchers in the coming week.