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Mike Leake, Cardinals' rotation finding another gear

ST. LOUIS -- The first 189 times Mike Leake started a major league game, he struck out 10 batters or more twice. The next two times he started a major league game, he struck out 10 batters or more twice.

Those last two outings happen to have come back-to-back for Leake, who became linked with a St. Louis Cardinals legend during Monday night’s 10-2 win over the San Diego Padres.

Leake and Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, who had a little more giddy-up on his fastball, are the only pitchers in St. Louis history to record double-digit strikeout games without a walk in back-to-back games, according to Elias Sports Bureau research.

“I’m trying to attack and trying to get a few more strikeouts,” Leake said. “I think that’s kind of helping.”

Leake’s dominance had the makings of a pattern. Victimized at times by poor Cardinals fielding earlier this season, Leake seemed intent on doing it himself if he must. Since the start of June, Leake’s fielding independent pitching (FIP) was 3.01 entering Monday. His ERA over the same span was 4.64. It seems his infielders have been letting him down, not surprising considering the Cardinals lead the majors in errors, among the measures of their defensive ineptitude.

A young veteran, Leake appears to be adapting. He is finding new ways to succeed in challenging circumstances, which can probably be said for a lot of Cardinals starters, most of whom rely heavily on ground balls.

In his past 48⅔ innings, Leake has 45 strikeouts and three walks, a spiffy ratio of 15-1. Facing the Brewers and Padres, Leake found another level. He was able to paint both corners and throw his slider with a deceptive enough release to have the Padres swinging futilely at outside pitches.

“He was out there throwing darts today,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “He’s got the ability to do that.”

The Cardinals' rotation, which underachieved through April and May, has been stouter since those dark early months. Adam Wainwright is showing signs of turning back the clock to his MVP-contending years. Carlos Martinez has been borderline dominant despite bad luck. Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia have been fine. In fact, with St. Louis still struggling in some facets, starting pitching might be the team’s brightest source of hope at the moment.

“I like where the starters are,” Matheny said. “We put a lot of pressure on them. I think they set the tone for our club. That’s kind of what we expect, not take for granted, but that’s the kind of pitching they expect of themselves as well.”

Matheny’s decision to lift Leake after just 88 pitches created some ripples of doubt in the Twittersphere and press box, but pinch hitter Matt Adams kept some of the second-guessing at bay. With runners on first and second and one out, Adams hit a soaring drive off reliever Carlos Villanueva to the left-center-field gap. It split the outfielders, scoring Jedd Gyorko and Greg Garcia.

Aledmys Diaz hit one to a similar location for an RBI triple and Stephen Piscotty made it a five-run lead with a single. Diaz, who also singled and walked, has been on base in 22 straight games, tying Josh Donaldson and Jayson Werth for the longest streak in the majors this season.

Matheny, who saw his team lose two of three games out of the All-Star break to drift toward the fringe of the wild-card race, made a desperate stab for offense. He did it in part, he said, because of the steamy conditions in St. Louis, which is experiencing a far-from-surprising heat wave this time of year. The overwhelming majority of Leake’s previous starts came for the Cincinnati Reds, who play in a similar climate.

“We’ve seen it take guys a little bit of time to get used to the humidity,” Matheny said. “He was coming in every inning icing himself down and trying to get toweled off. It can zap you in a hurry.”

Leake already has proven to be an adaptable sort, so perhaps he’ll even find these soupy conditions to his liking one day.