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Mike Leake and the Cardinals' infield finally strike the right chords

ANAHEIM -- Not that long ago, when St. Louis Cardinals infielders were booting a routine ground ball or two per game, pitcher Mike Leake must have had a few moments of doubt about the life-changing decision he made a few months earlier.

He wasn't making the Cardinals' front office look particularly smart for signing him to a five-year, $80 million contract in the offseason, and the men who played behind him weren't doing much to prop him up. Leake rarely does it alone. He pitches to contact, and in the early going, even poor contact wasn't necessarily leading to outs.

On Tuesday, when Leake snapped his head, it was often to watch a Cardinals infielder gobble up a ground ball headed for the outfield grass. The Cardinals beat the Los Angeles Angels 8-1, and Leake picked up his first win as a Cardinal. As usual, it was an ensemble performance.

Rookie shortstop Aledmys Diaz, whose glove was unreliable early this season, made a strong play in the hole to rob Daniel Nava of a first-inning RBI single and made a diving play to rob C.J. Cron in the fourth. Jedd Gyorko dove up the middle to rob Albert Pujols a couple batters earlier. Leake was ahead before he even started working because Matt Carpenter hit a line-drive home run to lead off the game.

The Cardinals were hoping their investment in Leake would've gotten them more than three wins and four losses in his first seven starts and that his ERA would have been a tad better than 5.10, as it currently stands, but they are aware that pitching and defense go hand-in-hand, particularly in Leake's case.

"It just reinforces that if you don't make plays, he's thinking he's got to make better pitches, so he maybe tries to make strikeout pitches instead of ground balls, and that can go in a bad direction," manager Mike Matheny said. "But guys made plays today."

It's not that Leake is a helpless bystander in games he starts. He hadn't been particularly sharp in his first six starts, he will admit. On Tuesday, he said he felt more consistent hitting his spots, more in sync with catcher Yadier Molina and better able to attack Molina's mitt in the bottom portion of the strike zone, where he needs to live to survive.

He generally diced up an Angels lineup in which perennial MVP contender Mike Trout stands out like a giraffe in a pack of zebras. After failing to make a pitch in the seventh inning in four of his first six starts, Leake held the Angels to one run on six hits in eight innings.

Afterward, Leake acknowledged that his first six weeks in a Cardinals uniform weren't the most comfortable days for him, as the team got off to a mediocre start, and his stat line and contract began to attract increasing attention from the fan base.

"I mean, I guess six or seven games in a row of not producing will do something [to you], but you've got to keep moving forward and learning," he said.

Asked if he had felt pressure to live up to his deal, Leake said, "I don't know if there was good or bad talk about it. My mindset was just, 'Keep going and keep learning and get over it. It will take care of itself.'"

The game Tuesday could have been a catharsis for the pitcher who went into the season as the Cardinals' No. 3 starter but had lagged behind the pack. The team is hoping the sharp all-around performance will jump-start their efforts to escape the orbit of mediocrity. They thought they were headed that way before the disappointing homestand that preceded this trip.

On Tuesday, for the first time in a while, the notes came together in harmony.