ARLINGTON -- The Rangers should have celebrated starter Adrian Sampson’s 5 2/3 scoreless innings and first Major League victory on Tuesday night. They should have been able to enjoy the excellent work of setup relievers Brett Martin, Shawn Kelley and Chris Martin, or Joey Gallo’s 10th home run.
Reliever Jesse Chavez hasn’t fared well either lately. He allowed home runs to Bryan Reynolds and Starling Marte in the 11th inning to absorb the loss.
But the closer is the highest-profile role in the bullpen and Leclerc is clearly struggling after pitching so brilliantly over the final two months of last season. A change could be coming.
“Really bad,” Leclerc said. “I try to do my best, I'm working hard, and my thing is not doing good right now. Whatever I try to do is not the right way. I just gotta keep working."
The three runs allowed in the ninth left Leclerc with an 8.44 ERA. That’s the fourth highest by a Rangers reliever with at least 10 appearances in March and April in club history. The on-base percentage against him is .464 and the slugging percentage is .591.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of him missing terribly,” manager Chris Woodward said. “He has thrown some balls in the middle of the plate. I’m just concerned we are seeing swings we didn’t see last year. They are on everything he is throwing. We are going to try and dig a little deeper to see what is happening. Is he missing more in the middle of the plate, or if something else is going on.”
Woodward admitted it is time to consider the alternatives. The Rangers may try to just ease Leclerc in a less stressful role for the time being until he gets back to the way he was throwing last year.
Kelley, who has a 1.50 ERA this season and 16 career saves, would be one possible alternative. Chris Martin was a closer for a year in Japan.
“We are going to discuss it,” Woodward said. “I don’t want to say that just yet. Obviously with a young guy, you don’t want to kill the kid’s confidence. I would love to keep giving him the ball, but I have to be mindful of where his mental state is. He wants the ball, but he doesn’t want to feel he’s letting his teammates down. It’s a tough situation for him.”
Leclerc took over as closer at the end of July last season and did not allow a run in his last 18 appearances. Over 18 innings, he allowed three hits and six walks while striking out 29.
The Rangers responded by signing him to a four-year, $14.75 million contract extension in Spring Training. So this is not just a matter of swapping out ninth-inning relievers. The Rangers have a long-term investment in Leclerc being a huge part of their pitching staff moving forward.
“I don’t want this to be a detriment to his future,” Woodward said. “Coming into the season, he was really excited about the new contract and he put a ton of pressure on himself when he got out there to be the lockdown closer that never blows a save. The reality is it’s the hardest inning to get three outs.”
Leclerc said he is not putting extra pressure on himself because of the contract.
“No, no. I try to do my best every time,” Leclerc said. “Last year, I tried to do the same, and I was good. This year, I don't think, because of the contract, I have to do better or whatever.”
Leclerc almost got out of the jam after the inning started with a double by Reynolds and singles by Cole Tucker and Adam Frazier to make it 3-1. Leclerc came back to strike out Marte and Gregory Polanco. But Josh Bell then drove a pitch to deep left-center to bring home both runners and tie the game.
“He obviously feels terrible,” Woodward said. “It was a really good game and he obviously felt he let the team down. We are going to keep giving him the ball, obviously look and see if it makes sense not to take him out of the closer’s role, but make sure some of his outings are a little less stressful. I have full confidence he’ll rebound at some point.”
Gallo keeps crushing baseballs
Gallo’s majestic 11th-inning home run was all for naught, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it.
The dinger off Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez, who had not allowed an earned run all season until Tuesday night, traveled an absurd 467 feet according to Statcast, with a launch angle of 32 degrees and exit velocity of 108.2 mph.
Suffice it to say, he is a monster.