There’s been at least one constant through baseball history: if your team pitches well, and does it consistently, you’ll win a lot of games. That was true in, say, 1917. And it’s true in 2017.
The Cardinals came into Wednesday’s game at Washington, trying to avoid being swept. They’d been staggered by a three-game losing streak and defeats in six of their last seven games. Over the three consecutive losses the STL pitching staff was strafed for 25 runs in 25 innings, with nearly as many walks (14) and strikeouts (16.) During the 1-6 slide coming into Wednesday’s matinee, the Cardinals were bruised for a 5.75 ERA. And the last three Cards’ starters — Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn — were punched down and knocked out.
When your pitchers are getting severely battered, you can forget about winning. Yeah, you can win the occasional 9-8 game but good luck trying to survive and thrive on that formula.
Pitching is still a team’s most essential component. Effective pitching can cover flaws, and give you a chance to win when the hitters are whiffing and fielders are fumbling.
The Cardinals needed a pitcher to quiet the Nationals’ bats, restore calm, and give his teammates something to cling to after several days of frustration and failure.
The Cardinals were in need of stability.
Someone to slow things down, and get their universe in order … if only for one day.
Mike Leake came through, in a money-pitcher way, outpitching reigning NL Cy Young award winner Max Scherzer in the Cards’ 6-1 victory Wednesday at Nationals Park. The visiting team’s stay in D.C. wasn’t pleasant; the Cardinals lost the first two games to the Nats and looked awful in every way.
There was nothing ugly about Leake’s performance. He crafted seven shutout innings, allowing only four of 24 Washington hitters to reach base. Leake struck out seven. He walked none. He went to the sinker 39 times, and served up a batch of ground-ball outs.
Leake’s Game Score was an impressive 81 — which put him right there with Martinez, who had turned in the Cards’ best starter Game Score, 82, in the opening-night win over the Cubs.
Before the 2016 season the Cardinals invested a five-year $80 million free-agent contract in Leake for a reason, and we’re witnessing the logic that went into the transaction. Innings, ground balls, poise, consistency. While Leake gets his share of strikeouts, he doesn’t fire grenades from the mound. He’s a smooth operator.
It’s only two starts, but Leake has been fab so far: 15 innings, one earned run, 13 strikeouts, one walk, 53 batters faced, only 11 batters reaching base.
For a pitcher that doesn’t rely on blistering velocity to bully his way through the other side’s lineup, Leake’s first two outings were good as he can be. And with the Cardinals nearly through their first two turns in the rotation, Leake’s been their best starter. He owns two of the Cards’ four quality starts so far.
Based on last season, I don’t think many would have predicted this.
In his first year as a Cardinal, Leake became an easy target among the short-attention span crowd that can only read and comprehend baseball-card stats.
They saw the 4.69 ERA and concluded that Leake was an overpaid bust.
Of course, that standard ERA was unfairly deceiving.
Leake was victimized by a clown-shoes defense and a bad-luck .321 batting average on balls in play. That was 21 percent above the league average, and evidence that he didn’t get many good breaks. And yeah, you better believe that defense and luck are huge factors for a ground-ball pitcher.
Leake’s more representative ERA — the fielding independent ERA — was a more respectable 3.87.
In 2016 Leake cranked out his highest strikeout rate since 2014, turned in the lowest (as in best) walk rate of his career, and cut down on his home-runs allowed rate. The free-spirited Leake did this after having to make an uneasy adjustment to the solemn Cult of Cardinals. He did this despite being weakened by a nasty case of the shingles. I’d imagine that Leake endured self-imposed pressure after signing the first big-dollar contract of his career … getting $15 million a year and the elevated expectations that come with the cash.
Leake was never as bad as his critics growled about in 2016. I’m happy for the guy, seeing him do his thing, showing what he really is. Demonstrating why GM John Mozeliak wanted Leake in St. Louis. Leake is belatedly earning respect. More than that, Leake earned a victory for a shaken team that needed positive reinforcement in the worst way.
Thanks for reading …