Erick Leal Makes It 5 Straight Scoreless Starts In AFL
MESA, Ariz.—When Erick Leal got word he needed Tommy John surgery after the 2016 season, he immediately assumed the worst.
“When I got Tommy John I thought my career was over,” said Leal, the Cubs 23-year-old pitching prospect. “But I’ve got a couple blessings in my life. I’ve got my wife, I’ve got my son, and they helped me to get my head always thinking of the positive.”
Clearly, there was a lot to be positive about.
Leal delivered his fifth consecutive scoreless start for Mesa in the Arizona Fall League on Tuesday afternoon. He has yet to allow a run in the AFL, posting 17.1 scoreless innings overall.
“Every start I’m feeling better to get to 100 percent,” Leal said. “I wouldn’t say I’m 100 percent, but I’m almost there.”
Leal made quick work of Peoria to extend his scoreless streak. He went four innings, allowed one hit, walked two and struck out five, needing just 53 pitches to get the win. Overall, the Venezuelan righthander has allowed just 10 hits and struck out 17 in the AFL, an exceptional follow-up to a strong regular season return.
After missing all of the 2017 season and the first month of 2018, Leal returned to the mound in May with high Class A Myrtle Beach. He logged a 1.41 ERA in 21 appearances (eight starts) with the Pelicans, a performance that solidified in his mind that all would be OK.
“When I was doing my recovery I was thinking, ‘I’m getting older, I have to work hard, I have to bring it back really good because I don’t have time to lose,’” he said. “That’s what I proved myself, I could do that.”
Leal’s fastball sat just 90-92 mph on Tuesday, but batters struggled to square it up all afternoon. What really stood out was his 74-75 mph curveball with 12-to-6 shape and big depth, enough to draw repeated swings and misses.
In the Carolina League, scouts identified Leal’s changeup as a plus pitch and his best offering. Now in the AFL, he’s showing his curveball is a swing-and-miss weapon too.
“That’s coming really good,” Leal said. “I’m working on it here because you can’t throw many breaking balls when you come back from surgery. But I’m working on it everyday and it’s pretty good now.”
With the AFL coming to a close next week, Leal likely has only one more start remaining. A perfect 0.00 ERA is in reach.
What’s most important to Leal, though, is that he’s getting stronger. After thinking Tommy John surgery meant his career was over, now he feels like he’s better than ever before.
“I feel right now that my pitches are coming back good, and maybe even better too because I got better command on my pitches,” he said. “I think it’s all coming back.”
NEWS AND NOTES
— Salt River’s 3-2 win over Scottsdale in the nightcap was essentially a showcase for Rockies prospects. Third baseman Tyler Nevin, the AFL’s leading hitter, went 1-for-4 but crushed the ball in all four of his at-bats; outfielder Sam Hilliard hit a titanic 414-foot home run to right field that left the bat at 114.8 mph, per Statcast; first baseman Josh Fuentes went 2-for-4 with a double and raced home with the winning run on a wild pitch in the eighth; and righthander Justin Lawrence closed it out in the ninth with a wicked array of 96-98 mph sinkers and diving mid-80s sliders, getting a strikeout and a quick ground ball double play for his third save.
With Rockies prospects largely the team’s top performers Salt River is 15-8 overall, tied for the best record in the AFL.
— Righthander Jon Duplantier (D-backs) struck out nine in 4.2 innings for Salt River. The reigning D-backs No. 1 prospect sat 94-96 mph on his fastball and didn’t throw one below 92 mph, a marked uptick from his previous 91-94 range. He mixed in an upper-80s slider and low-80s power curveball that both induced swings and misses, with his curveball particularly effective. He notched five strikeouts on his curveball, three and his fastball and one on his slider.