No take backs? 2 pitches hurt reliable Leake

Pair of late homers cost Cards righty, who has allowed only 4 runs in his last 4 starts

No take backs? 2 pitches hurt reliable Leake

WASHINGTON -- Mike Leake threw two pitches he'd like back Thursday. One of them, in the sixth inning, Bryce Harper launched to the third deck in right field. The other, an inning later, Danny Espinosa deposited into the home bullpen.

"A hanging changeup and a hanging slider right where hitters want the ball," Leake said after the Cardinals' 2-1 loss to the Nationals. "If you take those back, it still looks like a zero-run ballgame."

Other than the mistakes to Harper and Espinosa, Leake shut down the Nationals, limiting baserunners and pitching out of danger when necessary. He allowed seven hits and two runs in seven innings.

Statcast: Harper's moonshot

The outing marked Leake's fourth consecutive strong start after a tough start to the season. The right-hander has now ceded only four runs in 28 innings his last four times on the hill, dropping his ERA from 6.03 to 3.90 during the stretch.

Leake said his recent improvement is part of an ongoing process centered around attacking the strike zone.

"If I put it where I want it, I feel like they're not going to hit it," he said.

Thursday was the fifth time in his last eight starts that Leake has pitched at least seven innings, a boon for a St. Louis team whose bullpen has been taxed heavily in recent weeks.

Espinosa's solo blast in the 7th

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny commended Leake for working deep into Thursday's contest and noted the veteran's command of all his pitches.

"He was very unpredictable tonight," Matheny said. "When you thought he might throw the sinker, he came with the cutter and then sped him up to use the changeup. The breaking ball had multiple breaks on it, and he threw it harder at times. He had everything tonight."

In the end, Leake's outing was scarred by those two home run pitches. The righty said the mistakes were a combination of faulty pitch selection -- he was beat on his offspeed stuff instead of his sinker or cutter -- and poor execution.

But with the rest of the Cardinals' rotation struggling lately, Leake's performance over the last few weeks bodes well. He'll likely next take the mound next week against a Brewers team that hit him hard back in April, looking to prove the successes of his last four outings are here to stay.

Alex Putterman is a reporter for MLB.com based in Washington. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.