Mike Leake is in a better spot as he begins his second season with the St. Louis Cardinals.
“This year, I think I can say this is the most mature I’ve felt in my whole career,” Leake said Friday after taming the Washington Nationals in the Cardinals’ 7-1 win.
Specifically, Leake said he possesses “the most knowledge I’ve gathered.”
“I feel like I’m the most comfortable with the big leagues that I’ve been,” said the 29-year-old, who is 73-64 with a 3.99 ERA in seven seasons, six of them with the Cincinnati Reds. “(Everything) is going in a direction I love, so I’d like to keep it going.”
Leake retired the first 11 hitters before hanging a first-pitch curveball to Bryce Harper, who hammered it over the wall in right-center for Washington’s only run of the game.
Leake recorded eight ground-ball outs, six of them hit to third baseman Jhonny Peralta.
Peralta, a former shortstop, made the best defensive play of the game in the third when he charged a swinging bunt by Adam Eaton. Peralta barehanded the ball, threw across his body and nipped the speedy Eaton at first.
Leake knows he’s going to need tight defense from his infielders to be effective.
“We have capable infielders who can make every play,” Leake said of Peralta, shortstop Aledmys Diaz, second baseman Kolten Wong and first baseman Matt Carpenter, who is returning from lower-back soreness. “We have a good infield — maybe not the best range, but we have a very solid infield that can carry us.”
Leake is trying to bounce back from a disappointing first season with the Cardinals. After signing a five-year, $80-million deal, he was 9-12 with a career-worst 4.69 ERA.
Was it difficult to adjust to being with a new team?
“Yeah, but the guys made it pretty easy to jump right in,” Leake said. “Last year, my body was not reacting the way I wanted it to.”
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny admires Leake’s quiet demeanor but fierce competitive instincts.
“He goes about his business, you know?” Matheny said. “He shows up ready to compete when it’s his day. He was putting the ball exactly where he wanted to (Friday), it seemed like, right from the start. That’s the only way you have these kind of outings, 41 pitches in four innings. The other games were just as efficient.
“Right now, he’s controlling counts, no doubt about it. Guys are making plays for him.”
Leake had some extra octane Friday, hitting 93 and 94 mph with his fastball.
“Every pitch was working good,” Leake said. “Both my cutter and two-seamer were working well. The curveball was good. The changeup was OK. The slider was decent. There’s still work to get done, but it was decent. ... I felt pretty fresh.”
Unlike some pitchers, including teammate Lance Lynn, Leake puts stock in his spring performances. He said it provides an excellent opportunity to build a foundation.
“If you know what you’re doing right, then I think it’s fairly simple to repeat,” he said. “But if you don’t know what you’re doing, then it’s not easy. I have a pretty good idea right now of what I’m doing. It’s positive in that aspect.”