CINCINNATI — The Reds led the Pirates 2-1 in the seventh inning Monday night, but Pittsburgh was threatening to even the score with a runner on second and one out. Cincinnati pitcher Mike Leake took care of pinch hitter Travis Snider with a swinging strikeout for the second out. He thought he had finished off the inning with a pitch at the knees against Starling Marte.
Home-plate umpire Chris Conroy didn’t see it that way.
Catcher Devin Mesoraco went out for a quick chat and then Leake eventually got Marte on a fly ball to Shin-Soo Choo in center field to preserve the lead.
The Reds won the opener of this four-game series with Pittsburgh 4-1 behind four solo home runs and the pitching of a guy who has quietly put together as good of a first half to the season as anyone in the rotation, whether anyone wants to believe it or not.
Leake’s worst attribute has always been who or what he is not. He’s not Aroldis Chapman, who potentially was going to be the Reds’ No. 5 starter coming out of spring training. He’s not Tony Cingrani, the hot prospect who has graduated from the minor leagues and into a crucial spot in the bullpen. He’s not the No. 1 starter, which given that he started his major league career without playing in the minors would suggest that be his position.
All Mike Leake has gone about doing this season is to handle being Mike Leake.
Monday’s victory pushed his record to 7-3 and lowered his ERA to 2.64. He gave the Pirates just one run on six hits over his seven innings. Leake allowed nine runs on 16 hits in 12 innings total in his first two outings this season. Since then, he has allowed only 17 earned runs in 76-2/3 innings (a 1.99 ERA) in 12 starts.
“I’m a little bit more mature, thinking a little bit more,” Leake said after Monday’s game. “I think my head’s back to how I was in college a little bit pitch-wise and reading guys a little better. Same pitches, same everything — just a little more knowledge.”
Leake, 25, went 20-13 in his first two seasons with the Reds in 2010 and 2011 but dipped to 8-9 last season with an ERA of 4.58, including giving up 26 home runs. He has allowed only seven so far this season.
“He believes in himself, and he’s keeping the ball down. That’s the key thing,” said second baseman Brandon Phillips. “His biggest improvement has been keeping the ball down. He’s always been good, but he just left the ball up. Now he’s keeping it down. That’s why he’s having so much success.”
This was the second time this month Leake and Pittsburgh starter Francisco Liriano went head to head; the Reds beat Pittsburgh 2-0 on June 1. Leake threw six shutout innings that night while scattering seven hits. Liriano allowed just one run in that game. His only runs allowed Monday came on upper-deck home runs by shortstop Zack Cozart and third baseman Todd Frazier.
Liriano hadn’t allowed a home run in his first 45-2/3 innings this season before Cozart and Frazier got to him within a span of nine batters.
Leake left six Pirates on base and didn’t allow them a hit in seven at-bats with runners in scoring position.
“How soon we forget that this guy is very young and still learning,” manager Dusty Baker said. “I was talking to Jim Maloney the other day, and he was telling me he’d noticed how Mike Leake had gotten stronger, getting man muscles versus little boy muscles.
“He’s pitching, and he’s quietly going about his business. No fanfare. No difference in personality. He’s the same Mike Leake. He’s just pitching.”
Two of those guys Leake isn’t — Chapman and Cingrani — helped finish the Pirates off in the last two innings.
In the eighth inning, it was Cingrani who didn’t get the benefit of the call from a pitch that appeared good enough to have struck out Russell Martin looking. While Cingrani ended up walking Martin, putting runners on first and second with two outs, he came back to strike out Pedro Alvarez on three straight pitches. The final pitch was a 92-mph fastball up in the zone that Alvarez couldn’t touch.
It was Cingrani’s first relief appearance of the season.
Chapman walked one and struck out two in the ninth inning, including Marte to end the game, for his 18th save of the season.
“Everybody is doing their job. This is a team that really understands the role each person plays,” said right fielder Jay Bruce. “They embrace it, and they do a hell of a job doing it. We’re a complete team, and I think that’s really going to help us down the stretch here.”
Especially if Mike Leake continues to pitch like Mike Leake.