Baker's decision to keep Leake on roster paying off
CINCINNATI — Mike Leake should have worn a red tie and a black suit every day during spring training. He was the Rodney Dangerfield of the Cincinnati Reds pitching staff. No respect. The Grand Plan was for Aroldis Chapman to slip out of the bullpen as the team’s closer and directly into the rotation. That meant one of the five guys who was in the rotation in 2012, one of the five guys who never missed a start the entire season, had to be shunted aside — traded, demoted to the minors or pushed into the bullpen. And since Mike Leake was 8-9 with a 4.58 earned run average in 30 starts, it figured he held the shortest straw. But he had one man on his side — manager Dusty Baker. Not only did Baker want Leake in the rotation, he wanted Chapman to continue as closer, an assignment he handled with style and pizazz. And when spring training ended, Baker got his wish. Chapman remained in the bullpen and Leake remained in the rotation. The decision has made Baker look like a managerial magician. The question is not if Leake is the best No. 5 starter in baseball right now — that’s an unqualified and emphatic yes — the questions is if he is best pitcher in the National League. Preposterous? Pretentious? Propitious? The Pittsburgh Pirates were force-fed a large dose of evidence Monday night in Great American Ball Park. Leake held the Pirates to one run and six hits over seven innings, a line that is becoming handsomely monotonous. Over his last seven starts, Leake is 5-1 with a 1.15 earned run average (six runs/47 innings), giving up one or fewer runs in six of the those seven starts. And if that isn’t ace/No. 1/I’m the best in baseball type stuff right now, then Nolan Ryan didn’t throw seven no-hitters. “I’m doing all right and I’ll keep it going as long as I can,” Leake said. Leake knew during spring training that he was once again auditioning for his rotation life and that ignited embers in his belly that are still burning. “I don’t think about it when I’m pitching, but that definitely helped push me,” he said. “It adds a little fire to it and it helped to motivate me.” Leake said he is on a ‘Back to School’ plan, “And I’m more mature. My head is back to how I was in college (Arizona State) pitch-wise and reading hitters a little bit better. I’m throwing the same pitches, the same everything, but doing it with a little more knowledge.” That attitude has his record at 7-3 with a 2.64 ERA, putting him 10th in the league in ERA and tied for fourth in wins — not too ugly for a No. 5 guy who had to do some serious spring training convincing to keep grasp on his job. All spring, Baker was asked if Leake was the guy who would lose his job to Chapman and Baker never varied: “I like Mike Leake, I love Mike Leake. I’m a huge fan of his and we’ll see how this plays out.” And it has played out deeply in favor of Leake and Baker. “Leake is a new, improved pitcher, improved over where he was two years ago and don’t forget two years ago he was one of our best starters,” said Baker. “How soon we forget. We don’t realize he is still very young (25) and he is still learning.” Baker said he recently chatted with Reds Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Maloney, who attends spring training every year and Maloney told him, “I noticed how Leake has gotten stronger, has man muscles rather than little boy muscles, adolescent muscles. He is pitching with a lot of confidence and throwing a little harder than he was. “We used to have to watch him when he hit 85 to 90 pitches, but now we don’t have to watch him until he hits 100 or 105 pitches,” Baker added. “That means a lot because now he can take you into the seventh and possibly the eighth inning.” Whether Leake is the best No. 5 extant or perhaps the best No. 1 through 5, Baker said, “He is pitching. He is quietly going about his business, no fanfare, no difference in personality. He is just the same Mike Leake.” And, thanks to Baker’s persistence and confidence, he is still in the rotation.