CINCINNATI — The best pitcher on the Cincinnati Reds staff right now has the initials M.L. And before fans jumped to the conclusion that it is Mat Latos, well, not so fast, Seamheads.
While Latos has been supercharged for most of this season, a winning case can be made for Mike Leake.
Before anyone can say, “How can a No. 5 pitcher be the best on the staff?,” well, Leake considers it just a number.
“When I’m on the mound, I don’t think about being No. 1 or No. 3 or No 5,” said Leake. “When I’m on the mound, I’m the guy pitching that day and I guess that makes me No. 1.”
Leake is 7-3 with a 2.52 earned run average and the Reds have won seven of his last nine starts during a period when the team has struggled to win.
Over those nine starts, Leake has not given up more than two runs in any of those starts — nine earned runs in 63 innings for a 1.00 ERA.
The 25-year-old Leake, the team’s No. 1 draft pick in 2009, came directly from Arizona State to the Reds rotation in 2010 — a hint right that he is something special.
But he not only flies under the radar, the gun is never ever aimed at him. He is small in stature, he is field mouse quiet in demeanor and he doesn’t throw hard enough to tear tissue.
His pitching style is strictly real estate — location, location, location. Success comes when he mixes his repertoire and never throws the same pitch in the same location.
His style reminds some of Greg Maddux, although some guffaw over the comparison. Really? Over the same span of time, 3 ½ seasons deep into their careers, Leake is 35-24 and Maddux was 36-26.
Leake has problems maintaining respect from his own fans. There was talk last winter that closer Aroldis Chapman would be pushed into the rotation and Leake would be pushed out. Most fans wanted it. The Reds front office wanted it.
But manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Bryan Price wanted the status quo — why remove Chapman from a role in which he excels and why remove Leake from a solid rotation?
But the fans see fire from Chapman and smoke from Leake and they want what they want. They wanted Chapman.
They didn’t get him. With complete support from Baker and Price, the fans got Leake again and objections have trickled to nothing.
“Leake is on the natural course of progression that you like to see from a pitcher,” said Baker. “Most people didn’t want him around and wrote him off at the end of last season. Guys go through streaks and guys go through learning curves. In the big leagues is ain’t as easy as some guys can make it look.
“Leake went home after last season (8-9, 4.58) and worked on his change-up, worked on his delivery to mask his delivery to make everything the same. He really, really pays attention. Remember last year he lost his first six games and that’s tough to come back from. So I have to commend him for the way he bounced back and has not carried last year into this year.”
Leake admits that rumors of his demise from the rotation during spring training put some fire in his belly.
“It gave me some extra drive,” he said.
What he didn’t know most of the spring was that even though he and Chapman were starting games, Baker was pushing for Leake to stay right where he was.
“I love both those guys (Baker, Price) very much,” said Leake. “For my first go round I couldn’t ask for a couple of better guys to be my bosses.”
And of his resurrection from last year’s doldrums, Leake said it was back to his basics, the stuff he used at Arizona State, the stuff the Reds saw to encourage them to draft him.
“My first few starts this year weren’t that great — not bad, but not great,” he said. “I focused on the main things that I feel are keys to my success — keep the ball down, change pitches, keep the hitters guessing.”
Now that things are toppling his way, he remains as silent about it as Charlie Chaplin, but he knows how to stay on the same path.
“I’m trying to give it my best effort and see where it takes me,” said Leake.