It took just two pitches for the Giants to spoil Leake's storybook possibilities, as leadoff man Angel Pagan lined an 0-1 cutter 382 feet into right field for the first of six hits and five runs Leake would surrender in his 4 1/3 innings of work.
"He was throwing strikes," said Reds manager Dusty Baker, looking for a silver lining in the 8-3 defeat that pushed the series to a decisive Game 5 on Thursday. "He wasn't walking them. He wasn't throwing quality strikes. He was getting the ball up in the middle of the plate. When he does that, generally speaking, like most pitchers, he gets hit. Usually his ball is down."
Leake was roughed up again in the second inning, when Gregor Blanco launched a two-run blast to right-center field to put the Reds down, 3-1, but he eventually settled in and retired eight of the next 10, with two walks, entering the fifth.
But the feeling didn't last long. Back-to-back doubles from Joaquin Arias and Pagan led to another run for the Giants, and the end of a run for Leake.
"After they hit the other home run, I felt like I needed to do something to keep us in the game," said Leake, who found out he was pitching Wednesday shortly after the Reds' loss in Game 3. "For two innings I was able to, but that last one, it jumped on me again. Three mistakes, really. Two of them were home runs, one was an RBI double. Other than that, I thought I threw the ball somewhat pretty well."
Leake, who officially took Cueto's spot on the postseason roster Wednesday morning, was replaced by Sam LeCure and went on to suffer the loss in his first start since Sept. 29. Leake had 10 multi-home run games during the regular season -- easily the most out of the Reds' rotation this year -- but the team felt he pitched better than the numbers imply.
"Other than [the home runs], I think he did a good job," said catcher Dioner Navarro. "He pitched well, we just fell short. Two pitches cost us three runs. They have a good team. They can hit, they have a good game plan and they executed it well."
Leake was faced with a tall task, but it was one he had handled before, only in less meaningful games. The third-year starter entered the game with a 1.00 ERA against the Giants this season -- he earned a complete-game win in San Francisco on June 29 -- and a 3-0 record lifetime.
This time, on a bigger scale, with the NLCS within reach in front of 44,375 -- the third largest crowd in Great American Ball Park history -- Leake couldn't get the job done.
"It just felt like there were more fans, really," said Leake, downplaying the postseason jitters. "It's still another game. I would have liked to do a little bit better, but unfortunately I didn't."
If the Reds manage to escape the NLDS with a win in Game 5 on Thursday, by rule, they'll have to trudge through the entirety of the NL Championship Series without Cueto, meaning Leake could get the ball again down the line.
The Reds would face either the Cardinals or the Nationals -- two teams with which Leake is fairly familiar this season.
He made three starts against St. Louis, posting a 1-1 record and a 3.38 ERA. He didn't have as much luck with Washington, going 0-1 with a 10.61 ERA in his two starts.
Regardless of what's in store down the line, Wednesday's game was a good experience for Leake, who assured he would take something away from the loss.
"There's always something to learn from every outing," Leake said. "I still have to think of those things once I get away from the field. We should still have full confidence, there's no reason for us not to."