CINCINNATI The Reds led the Pirates 2-1 in the seventh inning Monday night, but Pittsburgh was threatening to even the score with a runner on second and one out. Mike Leake took care of pinch-hitter Travis Snider with a swinging strikeout for the second out. He thought he had finished off the inning with a pitch at the knees against Starling Marte.
Home plate umpire Chris Conroy didnt see it that way.
Catcher Devin Mesoraco went out for a quick chat and then Leake eventually got Marte on a fly ball to Shin-Soo Choo in center field to preserve the lead.
The Reds won the opener of this four-game series with Pittsburgh 4-1 behind four solo home runs and the pitching of a guy who has quietly put together as good of a first half to the season as anyone in the rotation, whether anyone wants to believe it or not.
Mike Leakes worst attribute has always been who or what he is not. Hes not Aroldis Chapman, who potentially was going to be the Reds No. 5 starter coming out of spring training. Hes not Tony Cingrani, the hot prospect who has graduated from the minor leagues and into a critical spot in the bullpen. Hes not the No. 1 starter, which given that he started his Major League career without playing in the minors would suggest that be his position.
All Mike Leake has gone about doing this season is handle being Mike Leake.
Mondays victory pushed his record to 7-3 and lowered his ERA to 2.64. He gave the Pirates just one run on six hits over his seven innings. Leake allowed nine runs on 16 hits in 12 innings over his first two outings this season. Since then hes allowed just 17 earned runs in 76 23 innings (a 1.99 ERA) in 12 starts.
Im a little bit more mature, thinking a little bit more, said Leake after Mondays game. I think my heads back to how I was in college a little bit pitch-wise and reading guys a little better. Same pitches, same everything just a little more knowledge.
Leake, 25, went 20-13 in his first two seasons with the Reds in 2010 and 2011 but dipped to 8-9 last season with an ERA of 4.58, including giving up 26 home runs. Hes allowed just seven so far this season.
He believes in himself and hes keeping the ball down. Thats the key thing, said second baseman Brandon Phillips. His biggest improvement has been keeping the ball down. Hes always been good but he just left the ball up. Now hes keeping it down. Thats why hes having so much success.
This was the second time this month Leake and Pittsburgh starter Francisco Liriano went head-to-head; the Reds beat Pittsburgh 2-0 on June 1. Leake threw six shutout innings that night while scattering seven hits. Liriano allowed just one run in that game. His only runs allowed Monday came on upper deck home runs by shortstop Zack Cozart and third baseman Todd Frazier.
Liriano hadnt allowed a home run in his first 45 23 innings this season before Cozart and Frazier got to him within a span of nine batters.
Leake left six Pirates on base and didnt allow them a hit in seven at-bats with runners in scoring position.
How soon we forget that this guy is very young and still learning, said manager Dusty Baker. I was talking to Jim Maloney the other day and he was telling me hed noticed how Mike Leake had gotten stronger, getting man muscles versus little boy muscles.
Hes pitching and hes quietly going about his business. No fanfare. No difference in personality. Hes the same Mike Leake. Hes just pitching.
Two of those guys that Leake isnt Chapman and Cingrani helped finish the Pirates off in the last two innings.
In the eighth inning it was Cingrani who didnt get the benefit of the call from a pitch that appeared good enough to have struck out Russell Martin looking. While Cingrani ended up walking Martin, putting runners on first and second with two outs, he came back to strike out Pedro Alvarez on three straight pitches. The final pitch was a 92 mph fastball up in the zone that Alvarez couldnt touch.
It was Cingranis first relief appearance of the season.
Chapman walked one and struck out two in the ninth inning, including Marte to end the game, for his 18th save of the season.
Everybody is doing their job. This is a team that really understands the role each person plays, said right fielder Jay Bruce. They embrace it and they do a hell of a job doing it. Were a complete team and I think thats really going to help us down the stretch here.
Especially if Mike Leake continues to pitch like Mike Leake.