CINCINNATI — Dusty Baker was asked what he expects from pitcher Mike Leake when Leake scrapes his spikes on the pitcher’s rubber Saturday afternoon against the Washington Nationals.
“A victory,” said the Cincinnati Reds manager. “Victories. Wins. Winning.”
Then, with barely a pause for breath, Baker shook his head and said it isn’t right for the paying public to assess Leake every time his turn pops up in the rotation.
It was Leake who was battling for his rotation life this spring against closer Aroldis Chapman, even though Baker was on Leake’s side throughout the process, preferring to keep Leake in the rotation and Chapman as the closer.
“Leake shouldn’t be under any pressure because he isn’t under any scrutiny from us every time he goes out there,” said Baker. “That’s not fair. All we know is that he is pitching against one of the best teams in our league.”
Leake, though, was under pressure and scrutiny all spring while he and Chapman started games on the same day — some in split-squad exhibitions and some against minor-league teams.
And while Leake was trying to solidify the team’s confidence, the 25-year-old No. 1 draft choice in 2009 was trying to re-invent himself, return to his collegiate glory days at Arizona State.
“I’m eager and excited about getting out there to see where I am,” said Leake. “During spring training I got back to establishing how I like to pitch this year. I have to continue it, carry it on.”
Even though Leake said he drifted away from the way he pitched at Arizona State, where he won 40 games in three seasons.
“Since I’ve been here I haven’t done anything to get the hitters off my fastballs,” he said. “I threw too much hard stuff. So I’m learning to change speeds a little more and mess with the hitters a little more, keep the hitters off balance.”
Leake is heaped upon extraordinarily for a guy who is 28-22 for his three major-league seasons, for a guy who came right off the ASU campus and into the Reds clubhouse with no intermediate stops in any minor-league seasons. To compare, Greg Maddux, a cinch to be voted into the Hall of Fame this winter, was 8-18 in his first two major-league seasons.
Leake’s first 2013 assignment is no stroll through the park against the Nationals.
“He is pitching against the best team in our league,” said Baker. “They have an excellent pitching staff, good speed and one of the top three bullpens in the league. They added Rafael Soriano to an already tough bullpen.”
Leake said he wasn’t assured of the rotation spot until his penultimate spring training start and it was if somebody lifted the batting cage off his back.
“I was sort of used to it because I had to win a spot the previous three years,” said Leake. “You’d love to go to camp having a spot, but it’s nice to have a competitive edge going for you. You don’t want to have to work harder and stress over, but it you definitely have to see what you need to improve upon and attack that.”
And talking about facing the Nationals, Leake said, “Yeah, they have a good lineup. But you have to treat them just like they are any other lineup.”
That’s a tough thing to do when you stare at the catcher to get your signals and you see Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond staring back from the batter’s box with ‘Washington’ on their shirts.
“A good team and I’ll try to be a little better than they are,” he said.