DENVER — When he took over in the third inning, relieving Phillies starter Nick Pivetta, Mark Leiter Jr. had a simple task: Save the bullpen.
He did that Saturday night with a performance that was historic, spellbinding and nearly defied belief, a long-relief outing for the ages, really.
“He put on a clinic on how to pitch,” manager Pete Mackanin said after the Phillies suffered their fifth straight loss on this road trip with an 8-5 loss to the Rockies (see Instant Replay).
“He threw all his pitches for strikes. Threw strikes with all his secondary pitches and he’s got quite a few of them. He made a lot of good hitters look bad tonight.”
Pivetta gave up five runs in the first and three more in the third when Pat Valaika hit a two-run homer to end Pivetta’s outing. On came Leiter, a 26-year-old rookie with good bloodlines, the son of a former major league pitcher. Leiter’s finger-in-the-dike mission was to go as long and as far as possible, so the bullpen would not be in tatters.
Leiter pitched 4⅓ scoreless innings. He allowed two singles, didn’t issue a walk and piled up nine strikeouts, eight of them swinging. Leiter threw 40 of 52 pitches for strikes. The Rockies swung and missed 13 of his pitches, most of those misses futile swings on splitters.
Leiter’s nine strikeouts are tied for the fifth-most by a reliever in Phillies history and the most since Lowell Palmer struck out 10 against San Francisco on May 3, 1970. Leiter became the sixth reliever in MLB history to record nine strikeouts without allowing a run or walk. The last was Bruce Ruffin, who began his career with the Phillies, on Sept. 14, 1993, when he was pitching for the Rockies against Houston.
Leiter was in his fifth season in the minors this year when the Phillies promoted him. He made his major league debut April 28. Leiter is now in his third stint with the Phillies, this one beginning last Sunday when they recalled him from Triple A Lehigh Valley two days after trading Jeremy Hellickson to Baltimore.
When he took over for Pivetta, Leiter’s big league experience consisted of 17 games, including three starts, with a 1-2 record and a 4.86 ERA with 19 walks and 29 strikeouts in 37 innings and 32 hits allowed.
There were some moments, like May 2 at Wrigley Field where Leiter became the first Phillies reliever since Ryan Madson in 2005 to throw at least three innings and allow one or no hits. But there were never moments like Saturday night at Coors Field against a potent Rockies lineup.
“Just try and throw strikes and get ahead and not let your pitch count get away from you,” Leiter said. “Just try to stick to the game plan and also executing pitches.”
A graduate of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Leiter was drafted by the Phillies in the 22nd round in 2013. By then, obviously, he had shown profession promise, armed with six pitches and a knack for when and how to use them.
“I wasn’t a guy that threw 90-plus in high school,” Leiter said. “Didn’t really start throwing 90 (mph) until college. My sophomore year is when I started throwing a little harder. I learned how to pitch and each year kind of got a little better with one pitch and maybe adding a pitch and kind of using one more here and one there. Just kind of evolving to being 26 years old now. I played a long time in the minor leagues, just each year trying to get better. That’s really what it comes down to."
In the midst of another Phillies loss, Leiter was spectacular. He said it was disappointing to lose but everybody has a job and helping the team in whatever way possible is paramount.
“Can’t say enough about his performance,” Mackanin said. “He’s a rookie. He’s getting his feet wet. But he pitched like a 10-year veteran tonight. He put on a clinic for every pitcher in baseball. It was really a lot of fun to watch.”