Some 90 minutes into his initial appearance in a Seattle uniform, pitcher Mike Leake established a designation for himself.
Mariners No. 1 starter.
“Outstanding,” manager Scott Servais said of Leake’s Safeco Field debut last Friday, when the former St. Louis right-hander went seven innings to earn the decision in a 3-2 victory over the Athletics. “I would love to see that every time out. He was really good.”
Leake was so good that Servais juggled the rotation, switching Leake from his scheduled start against the Astros to the first game of the Mariners’ weekend series with the Angels.
Servais on Wednesday suggested the decision to save Leake for Friday was more about giving the veteran extra rest than gaining ground on a wild card rival, adding: ‘’You really don’t want to read too much into it.”
Sorry, I can’t resist. Interpreting the motives of a manager is something I enjoy almost as much as second-guessing managerial moves that backfire. In any case, Leake will get the ball for the opening game of the season’s first (and possibly last) truly consequential series.
A Mariners sweep will put them in a tie with the Angels in the free-for-all cage match for the second wild-card spot. If the Mariners fail to sweep, their playoff hopes will loom as invisible on the horizon as the smoky mountain ranges were this week.
“It’s a big series, for sure,” Leake said before the Mariners lost to the Astros on Wednesday. “We’ll still have two and a half weeks to play, but it definitely will set the tone for those two and a half weeks, and tell us whether we’re ahead of the Angels or behind them.”
The only active big-league player to have bypassed the minors – he went from Arizona State to the Reds in 2010 – Leake owns a lifetime record of 81-76, with a 4.01 ERA. Of his 229 career starts, a handful have been made under stretch-run pressure – most recently a year ago, when the Cardinals, Mets and Giants were competing for an NL wild card bid resolved in a photo finish that found the Cards eliminated on the final weekend.
“You try to treat every game pretty similar,” said Leake. “Either you dumb it down a little bit, or let the excitement absorb into you.”
Leake’s role atop the Mariners rotation figures to be temporary. James Paxton and Felix Hernandez are set to work simulated games on Friday, and if all goes well, the injured pitchers will be activated from the disabled list next week.
But for now, Leake is the most accomplished starter of a rotation cobbled together from Triple-A.
“He was able to finish hitters, and he was able to keep in the game,” Servais said of Leake’s effort against Oakland. “We extended him a little bit longer than he normally goes pitch-wise, but he carried the load fine.
“He’s been a nice addition, a veteran presence who’s been talking with some of our younger pitchers, asking them questions, being very attentive. He wants to see what we’re about, sit back and take it all in and figure out people’s personalities, mine included.”
Leake’s curiosity is understandable, as his stay in Seattle appears long term. Acquired from the Cardinals in what amounted to a salary dump, Leake is under club control through 2020, with a mutual option for 2021.
Leake waived the no-trade clause in his contract to clear the way to Seattle, home of an aunt he’d visit on summer trips from the San Diego area.
“I was a Mariner Moose fan and a huge Ken Griffey Jr. fan,” said Leake. “I guess you could say it was love at first sight.”
Desperate for an experienced and durable starter, the Mariners are familiar with the feeling.