Trade piece Leake falls just short of perfecto

July 20th, 2019

SEATTLE -- might not be in Seattle in two weeks. He could be dealt ahead of the July 31 Trade Deadline and might soon be pitching in a pennant chase. He certainly threw like he was in one during the Mariners’ 10-0 win over the Angels on Friday.

One week after the Mariners were no-hit by the Angels following an emotional tribute to Tyler Skaggs, Leake came just three outs from completing the 24th perfect game in Major League history -- and the first since fellow Mariner Felix Hernandez went the distance on Aug. 15, 2012.

Against the same Angels club that just one week prior had carved Leake up in the shortest start of his career, the 10-year veteran responded with one of his best, helping Seattle snap a six-game losing streak that dated to the first half.

“I think a little bit more of urgency,” Leake said of the contrasts between this Friday and last. “They came out super urgent the last outing, so I definitely didn't want that to happen again.”

Luis Renfigo led off the ninth with a single through first and second base that ended Leake’s chance at history, at which point T-Mobile Park erupted in an ovation. Leake then walked Kevan Smith before retiring Matt Thaiss, Brian Goodwin and Mike Trout in order to cap his second career shutout.

“It was fun. As you get closer, you get the shakes and you kind of have to calm yourself down,” Leake said. “But other than that, it's just a matter of making your pitches.”

If this was his final game for Seattle, it was historic. Because he is still due at least $20 million over the next two seasons ($4 million of which will be paid by the Cardinals next year), including a $5 million buyout for 2021, Leake doesn’t fit into rebuilding Seattle’s long-term plans, particularly with the club aiming to trim payroll in what its publicly called a “step-back” season.

In that context, Leake’s trade value couldn’t be trending upward at a better time. His veteran presence and ability to eat innings effectively are traits contending teams covet. And Leake likely won’t cost much in prospect capital, given that he’s shown inconsistency at times, and comes with a costly contract that isn’t a rental.

“I think I've been talked about being traded for almost a year now. It's kind of normal right now,” Leake said.

The dearth of available starters could steer leverage in Seattle’s favor, particularly with Zack Wheeler’s right shoulder injury casting uncertainty about the Mets' ability to move him and the Giants’ 13-2 run that might give San Francisco pause in parting with Madison Bumgarner. The Blue Jays’ Marcus Stroman, the Tigers’ Matthew Boyd, and to a lesser extent, the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard are among starters who’ve been most prominently linked to trade rumors.

Candidly, Leake said he’s lent himself to the notion that he could be pitching in October. Asked if he felt his start on Friday felt more important, Leake said:

“I was kind of forcing myself to think that way as well, especially since it really was [important] in a way. It was a perfect game chase. I think that's similar to throwing in a playoff situation. If the opportunity presents itself, I would think about it. It might happen.”

If Friday was an audition for a prospective buyer, it was just three outs shy of being perfect as could be.

Methodical, cerebral and quick, Leake needed just 98 pitches to finalize his second complete game of 2019 and sixth of his career. He painted the black with a mix of low-velocity, high-movement fastballs, a low-80s changeup and an effective slider. It was the trademark fashion that Leake has embodied when at his best throughout his 10-year career.

With batterymate Tom Murphy calling pitch sequences, Leake largely generated soft contact when balls were in play, sans two 100-plus-mph lineouts by Trout, who went 0-for-4 with a strikeout to end the game. Leake’s success against Trout was particularly notable given that the two-time American League MVP Award winner entered Friday 14-for-26 with a 1.154 slugging percentage against Leake.

“From my end of the spectrum, just being able to call a guy that has five pitches like that, that can throw them for any strike at any time in any location, it makes my job a lot of fun,” Murphy said. “Obviously, I take that fun and kind of give it back to him and stay really connected to him. It's really kind of putting the pieces of the puzzle throughout the whole game.”

On Hall of Fame weekend -- which will feature Mariners legend Edgar Martinez being enshrined in Cooperstown, N.Y., on Sunday -- Leake completed his first “Maddux”: a complete game in under 100 pitches, becoming just the fifth pitcher this season to do so.

And one quirk to Friday’s chase at history: With a perfect game on the line, a defensive gem to save would-be history never manifested. Put simply, it was all Leake.

“It really was. That was Mike at the top of his game right there,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He was working quick. He gets them in swing mode because all of his pitches are going to be around the plate. But I thought he did a really nice job of mixing speeds. There was a lot of back and forth.”