CINCINNATI -- José Leclerc entered Monday’s matchup with the Reds with a 0.00 ERA. He ended the game with the same mark.
But it's not been an ideal start to the season for the Rangers’ reliever, as highlighted by Leclerc’s short outing in the Rangers’ 7-6 walk-off loss to the Reds.
With the Rangers up 6-4 in the bottom of the eighth inning, reliever Dane Dunning loaded the bases with a single and two walks. Manager Bruce Bochy called upon Leclerc to try to clean up the mess and keep Texas ahead going into the ninth.
Instead, Leclerc issued back-to-back run-scoring walks to tie the game before striking out Jose Barrero on four pitches to end the inning.
“He needed to throw more strikes,” Bochy said postgame. “I don’t know what else to tell you. He just lost the feel of it on his release and just had trouble getting the ball over the plate.”
In the bottom of the ninth inning, Leclerc returned to the mound, looking to send the game to extras. Instead, he walked the leadoff batter, giving way to lefty Will Smith. Then the winning run came around after a passed ball and an RBI single from TJ Friedl.
“We were hoping he would get it going,” Bochy said of sending Leclerc back out to start the ninth. “Will pitched last night, but I said [before the inning] that if [Leclerc] walks the first batter, I’ll go get him. You're hoping that he gets a feel for it, with that first hitter, a right-handed hitter, but he just didn’t have it.”
“José, he just had no feel,” Bochy added. “You hate to see it, and that's a tough one to let get away, but hey, we got to move on.”
Leclerc was set to be the Rangers’ closer coming out of Spring Training, and he leads the team in save opportunities (three), but he’s not guaranteed to hold that distinction going forward. Smith and right-hander Jonathan Hernández are two other Rangers who’ve had chances to close games.
Despite Leclerc’s performance and the bullpen usage as a whole so far this season, Bochy said that this game in particular does not affect how he’ll employ the bullpen going forward.
“Johnny was down today, and we had a pretty good right-hander [in Dunning] who's been as hot as anybody,” Bochy said. “He had a good seventh inning, and after the first hit, he just had his struggles trying to throw strikes too. After walking the bases loaded, you're a little bit forced there because of the situation. You bring the closer in, and you're not expecting that to happen to be honest, but we had an off night.”
“Off night” is a good way to describe the Rangers pitching staff in the loss.
Starter Nathan Eovaldi got behind early, giving up one run in the first inning, and after the Rangers took a 5-1 lead in the top of the third, he surrendered another three runs in the bottom half of the frame, putting the Reds within striking distance.
As a whole, four Rangers pitchers combined to allow six walks and eight hits while striking out nine. Dunning and Leclerc alone allowed five of the six walks. Eovaldi issued one walk and hit a batter.
“I saw the same thing I think we all saw, we just had trouble throwing strikes,” Bochy said. “We pretty much hurt ourselves with the walks, and it caught up with us. They laid off some tough pitches there, but still, that's not us, and it just got away from us. We did a lot of good things in the game offensively, put some runs up, but we just had trouble throwing strikes.”
Eovaldi said these types of losses are more frustrating because of the job the offense did to put them ahead early in the game and extend the lead at different points.
“It’s a tough one,” Eovaldi said. “I don't know what the deal was, but Dane comes in, and he’s been in the zone, and he goes back out and has issues with walks. Pico comes in, has issues with walks, and same with Will, I don't know what it is. We'll see what happens tomorrow. I mean, we've got to make those adjustments and just go back out there and stay on the attack.
“We definitely scored enough runs to win this ballgame tonight. I feel like that one's on the pitching staff.”