Monday, January 9, 2012

One Season Wonders: Terry Leach

Many players have dreams of making it to the major leagues.  Some go through many years of minor league seasoning before getting their first call to the big show.  Others bounce around from team to team in the hopes of getting a small taste of big league baseball.  Those who do both rarely get to stay in the majors for very long, usually getting a cup of coffee with the parent club before being relegated to the bench or back to the minors.

One former Met fit the criteria for all of the above scenarios, as Terry Leach was originally selected by the Boston Red Sox in the seventh round of the 1976 MLB January draft.  Soon after, that pick was voided and Leach became a free agent.  In 1977, Leach signed with the Atlanta Braves, toiling in their minor league system for four years before being released midway through the 1980 season.  New Mets GM Frank Cashen, always on the lookout for fresh young talent, scooped up Leach four days after his release from the Braves.

Leach had two brief stints with the Mets in 1981 and 1982 as a spot starter and reliever.  In 1981, he went 1-1 with a 2.55 ERA in 21 games (one start).  Leach regressed in 1982, posting a 5.35 ERA over his first 20 appearances, all in relief, before finally getting a start during the last weekend of the season against the Philadelphia Phillies.  In that start, Leach gave the Mets one of the best pitching performances in franchise history.  He threw ten shutout innings while allowing only one hit, a fifth inning triple to Luis Aguayo.  The Mets, who themselves had only one hit through the first nine innings, won the game for Leach by manufacturing a run in the tenth inning.  It was Leach's first career victory as a starter.

The dominating start by Leach to close out the 1982 season didn't translate into future success with the Mets, as Leach began the 1983 season at AAA-Tidewater and fared poorly, going 5-7 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in 113 innings.  He was traded to the Chicago Cubs that summer for two minor leaguers and it was believed that his once promising career with the Mets had come to a close.  However, this was not the case, as a few short years later, Leach turned in one of the most unexpected seasons in Mets' history.

It took many years and organizations for Terry Leach to become a one-season wonder for the Mets.

Terry Hester Leach had thrown his last pitch for the Mets following the 1982 season, or so he thought.  The 1982 season only turned out to be the final chapter in Act One of Terry Leach's career with the Mets.  After his trade to the Cubs in 1983, Leach was dealt back to the Atlanta Braves, the team for which he began his professional career in 1977.  A month later, Leach was released a second time by the Braves and was re-signed the next day by Frank Cashen.  Given a new lease on his baseball life by the Mets, Leach was not going to disappoint the team.

Leach, now in his 30s, began the 1985 season in the Mets' minor league system, but didn't stay there very long.  In 24 relief appearances for Tidewater, Leach was dominant, posting a 1.59 ERA and 0.90 WHIP.  His performance for the Tides got Leach a call to the majors in June, where he once again pitched in relief with an occasional spot start when needed.  Leach performed well in his first extended stay in the majors, going 3-4 with a 2.91 ERA in 55.2 innings of work.  However, it was his work as a spot starter that got the most attention.  In four starts, Leach went 3-1 with a 2.70 ERA and 1.05 WHIP.  Opposing batters were confounded by Leach's submarine delivery and when they did get on base, they didn't hit the ball very hard.  Leach held hitters to a .221 batting average in those four starts, to go with a .272 on-base percentage and a lilliputian .295 slugging percentage.

Judging by his performance in four starts during the 1985 season, Leach appeared to be on his way to becoming a successful starting pitcher in the major leagues.  But then came the 1986 season, a season in which Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Bobby Ojeda and Rick Aguilera made 148 of the team's 162 starts and combined to go 76-30.  With Gooden, Darling, Fernandez and Ojeda all pitching over 200 innings each, and Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco combining to throw over 200 more, it was difficult for Leach to pitch in any role for the 1986 Mets.  As a result, Leach pitched mostly at Tidewater, going 4-4 with a 2.49 ERA in 34 appearances (15 starts), while only making six appearances (all in relief) for the 1986 Mets.

The 1987 season appeared to be no different for Leach, as the same five starters who took over the 1986 season were scheduled to begin the '87 season in the rotation.  Then Gooden missed the first two months of the season to check himself into rehab for cocaine abuse, giving Leach a spot on the major league roster.  It was an opportunity that Leach had been looking forward to for the better part of a decade.

At the age of 33, Leach was finally part of an Opening Day roster for the first time in his professional career.  Although he began the season pitching out of the bullpen, Leach performed extremely well in that role.  Leach made 18 relief appearances in April and May, going 3-0 with a 2.37 ERA and 1.19 WHIP.  But once Rick Aguilera was placed on the disabled list in late May with a strained elbow ligament, joining the rehabbing Dwight Gooden and the injured Bobby Ojeda, another spot opened up in the starting rotation.  Leach was tabbed by manager Davey Johnson to face Fernando Valenzuela and the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 1.  It would become the most important start in Terry Leach's career.

Leach pitched well against the Dodgers, besting Valenzuela with six strong innings.  He allowed one unearned run on four hits while walking one batter in the 5-2 Mets victory.  It was the first of 12 starts Leach would make during the 1987 season and each one appeared to come after another starter got hurt.

As players continued to succumb to injuries, Leach continue to thrive with his increased workload and responsibility.  Eight days after making his first start of the season,  Leach made his second.  He pitched well again, allowing two earned runs to the Chicago Cubs in six innings of work.  But the bullpen failed that afternoon at Wrigley Field, as Randy Myers and Roger McDowell combined to give up the go-ahead runs in the eighth inning of the Mets' 6-5 loss.  With the loss, the Mets dropped to 28-28 on the season.  They were in fourth place in the NL East and hopes of repeating as World Series champions were fading fast.  It was then that Terry Leach went on an unprecedented run of success for the Mets.

Following the bullpen meltdown on June 9, the team went on a major roll, going 35-18 over the next 53 games to move into second place in the NL East and within striking distance of the first place St. Louis Cardinals.  By the time the run ended in mid-August, the Mets had added Sid Fernandez to the long list of players who spent time on the disabled list.  But by then, Terry Leach had done what no one had expected him to do and what no other Mets pitcher had ever done before him.

From mid-June to mid-August, Leach made eight more starts.  The Mets won all eight of those starts.  Over that magical two-month stretch, Leach went 6-0 with two no-decisions.  He allowed two runs or less in six of those eight starts, which included his second career shutout, a two-hit masterpiece over the Cincinnati Reds on July 2.  When his streak of excellence ended, Leach's record stood at a perfect 10-0, making him the first pitcher in Mets history to win his first ten decisions in a single season.

Leach finally suffered his first loss of the season on August 15, allowing four runs in a 7-3 loss to the Cubs.  He made one more start after that loss, receiving a no-decision in the Mets' 7-4 victory over the San Francisco Giants on August 20, then returned to the bullpen for the rest of the season once the injured starters returned to the land of the healthy.  As a reliever, Leach won his 11th game of the year on September 8, earning the victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.  That win, followed by the following night's victory, pulled the Mets to within 1½ games of the division-leading Cardinals.  It was the closest the Mets would get to first place in 1987.  However, the Mets would never have found themselves in such close proximity to the division lead had it not been for Herculean effort of Terry Leach.

With injuries no longer a problem following the 1987 season, Terry Leach went back into the Mets bullpen for good.   Leach made 52 appearances in 1988, all in relief, en route to a 7-2 record and 2.54 ERA.  In 1989, Leach made 10 relief appearances for the Mets, but saw his ERA rise to 4.22.  On June 9, the Mets traded Leach to the Kansas City Royals for minor league pitcher Aguedo Vasquez.  Vasquez never pitched for the Mets and was out of professional baseball by age 24.  Leach's trade began a flurry of activity for the Mets, as a number of mainstays from the 1986 World Series champions such as Lenny Dykstra, Roger McDowell, Mookie Wilson, Lee Mazzilli and Rick Aguilera were either waived or traded.

Once traded by the Mets, Leach's career resembled his early days in professional baseball.  He was released by the Royals in 1990 and was signed by the Minnesota Twins.  He pitched two seasons in Minnesota, appearing in 105 games (all in relief) and winning a World Series ring in 1991.  He then signed with Montreal as a free agent in 1992 before being released by the Expos prior to Opening Day.  One day after his release, he was signed by the Chicago White Sox, pitching the final two seasons of his career (1992-1993) as a member of the Pale Hose.

Terry Leach was not a typical pitcher.  He didn't overpower opposing batters with a blazing fastball or possess a standard out pitch.  But for one incredible season, he was as dominant as any pitcher in the Mets' rotation.  In 1987, Leach was 11-1 for the Mets in a season where each member of the starting rotation spent time on the disabled list.  Leach pitched in six other seasons for the Mets but only managed to win 13 games in those other half-dozen campaigns.

Terry Leach's overall numbers in New York were very good.  He was 24-9 with a 3.11 ERA in 176 career appearances.  Of those 176 appearances, all but 18 came in relief.  But what he did in those 18 starts was more crucial than anything he did in his plethora of relief appearances.  Terry Leach did everything he could to save the Mets' season in 1987, but couldn't do it all on his own.  Despite his best efforts, the Mets still finished three games behind the pennant-winning St. Louis Cardinals in the NL East.  But the season could have been over well before Terry Pendleton effectively ended it on that infamous night in September at Shea Stadium.

From his beginnings in Selma, Alabama to the bright lights of New York, Terry Leach did nothing but fight his way to get to the big leagues.  He could have given up on his dream every time he was released or traded, but instead chose to use the rejection as motivation to continue to be the best pitcher he could be, regardless of the role he was used in.  Terry Leach had a dream season for the Mets in 1987 and although it was his only year in the spotlight, it was one of the most important seasons by a pitcher in club history.  Not bad for the kid from the small town in Alabama.

Note: One Season Wonders is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets who had one and only one memorable season in New York.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:
January 2, 2012: Bernard Gilkey


DyHrdMET said...

I remember when I just getting into baseball in 1987, Terry Leach stood out to me because of his unconvential windup and delivery.

Ed Leyro (and Joey Beartran) said...

Maybe all Met pitchers should have thrown submarine-style in 1987. Then the DL wouldn't have been so crowded.