Cards leave Leake's gem unpolished

Cards leave Leake's gem unpolished

ST. LOUIS -- Coming off a season in which he was so often let down by his own defense, Mike Leake on Friday lacked the offensive support necessary to turn his gem into a win.

Instead, the Reds grabbed the series opener, 2-0, leaving the Cardinals to lament another strong pitching performance wasted this week. The Cardinals' starting pitchers have combined for a 1.75 ERA in their season debuts. Yet, the club enters the weekend having won once in four games.

But if the Cardinals get from Leake what they did Friday, they'll enjoy success more often than not. Leake covered eight innings on 92 pitches, with six of his eight frames requiring a dozen pitches or fewer. If not for Billy Hamilton's speed and Joey Votto's RBI double, Leake would have matched Reds rookie Amir Garrett's row of scoreless frames.

"Good rhythm, and Yadi [Molina] was doing a great job back there calling pitches, so it made it pretty easy," Leake said. "I felt like I could go to any of my pitches all night."

Leake's first strikeout of 2017

It was a continuation of what Leake had previously described as the best Spring Training of his career. He used the word "maturing" to describe how he has a better command for his pitches and a wiser understanding of when to use them than ever before. In fact, he sees himself not so much as a veteran entering his eighth big league season, but rather a 29-year-old finally figuring everything out.

"This is a point where I don't think I've been before," Leake said. "The last few years have just been pretty big years for myself as far as learning. It's been a process. It hasn't necessarily been an 'aha' moment, but the process has gotten me here."

Along the way, Leake navigated through a 2016 season that could be defined differently depending upon which numbers are cited. Leake had the highest ERA (4.69) of his career, but also the lowest Fielding Independent Pitching (3.83). A Cardinals defense that ranked 26th in the Majors in defensive efficiency (.680) explained the gap.

But the defense should be improved this year, and, aside from a flubbed double-play attempt, it showed Friday how it can be a complement to Leake's efficient style. All that was missing this time were some runs.

"[It was] exactly what we anticipated we were going to see from Mike Leake with what we've seen from him so far this year," manager Mike Matheny said. "We only have last spring and this spring to compare, but it was day and night when he first showed up.

"He was putting the ball exactly where he wanted to, and that's the kind of pitcher he can be. Not to clump him into any group, but there is an elite group of pitchers out there that can put a lot of movement on the ball and just walk off the plate in small increments. That's what Mike Leake has the potential to do."

Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.