By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Thirty-eight years ago yesterday, Luis Leal tossed a two-hit shutout for the Toronto Blue Jays in their 8-0 win over the eventual American League West champion Chicago White Sox on a steamy night at Comiskey Park.
It was the 26-year-old right-hander’s first major league shutout.
“It was warm like home,” Leal, who’s from Venezuela, told reporters after the game. “This is my kind of weather. It was the best game I’ve ever thrown.”
It was also arguably the best game he’d ever pitch as a big leaguer, although he did toss another two-hit shutout against on June 16 of the following season against the Boston Red Sox.
But much like two-hit shutouts, Leal has been underrated in baseball and Blue Jays’ lore.
If you ask a Blue Jays fan today to name the only six pitchers in franchise history to have three consecutive 200-inning seasons, they’re likely to rhyme off the first five names (Dave Stieb, Jim Clancy, Jimmy Key, Pat Hentgen and Roy Halladay) fairly quickly.
Leal is the sixth hurler on that list, and one that many current Blue Jays fans have probably never heard of.
However, from 1982 to 1984, Leal was a mainstay of the club’s rotation and never hurled less than 217 innings in a season.
Born in Barquisimeto, Ven., on March 21, 1957, Leal was signed by super scout Epy Guerrero on November 24, 1978 and swiftly moved up the Blue Jays’ ranks.
In his first professional season, he went 12-2 with a 2.64 ERA and pitched 150 innings and tossed seven complete games and four shutouts in 21 starts for the Class-A Dunedin Blue Jays, which was enough to earn him a promotion to Triple-A Syracuse for a start that September.
The young righty got off to strong start in Triple-A in 1980 and was called up on May 25 to make his major league debut against the New York Yankees at Exhibition Stadium. Armed with a sneaky fastball and a sharp, tight slider, he earned the win in that contest, allowing three runs on 12 hits in 7 2/3 innings.
In all, in 1980, he’d post a 4.53 ERA in 13 big league appearances, including 10 starts, in 59 2/3 innings. The following year, he cracked the big league roster out of spring training and proceeded to register a respectable 3.68 ERA, despite a league-leading 13 losses, in 29 appearances (19 starts) in a strike-shortened campaign.
But when Bobby Cox replaced Bobby Mattick as manager in 1982, Leal became a stable of the rotation, making 38 starts, the third most in the American League that season, and hurling a career-high 249 1/3 innings (sixth in the AL). He also pitched 10 complete games and finished the year with a 12-15 record and a 3.93 ERA.
The durable right-hander returned to the rotation in 1983 and made 35 more starts (sixth in the AL) and tossed 217 1/3 innings, while collecting 13 wins to help lead the Blue Jays to an 89-73 record.
Leal enjoyed his finest campaign in 1984 when he started the season 12-2 with a 3.05 ERA in his first 24 games before he lost six of his last seven starts to finish 13-8 with a 3.89 ERA in 222 1/3 innings.
Longtime Blue Jays followers will point out that Leal racked up all of these innings with a less than model physique. The 6-foot-3 righty, who’s generously listed at 220 pounds in the 1985 Blue Jays media guide, endured a steady stream of jabs about his conditioning throughout his career.
And unfortunately in 1985, a season in which the Blue Jays captured their first division title, Leal faltered, posting a 5.75 ERA in 15 games through July 5 before being sent down to triple-A and replaced in the rotation by Tom Filer.
Ernie Whitt writes in his autobiography, Catch: A Major League Life, that Leal lost his slider in 1985.
“He pitched well for many years until he lost his slider, which was one of his best pitches” writes Whitt. “I don’t know what happened to it. He just suddenly couldn’t throw it for strikes anymore. It just stopped being a good, hard, tight spin slider like he’d had previously. Once he lost that he wasn’t able to adjust to anything else and eventually worked himself right out of the big leagues.”
After his demotion in July 1985, Leal never resurfaced in the major leagues. He spent the 1986 season with Triple-A Syracuse, prior to being swapped with Damaso Garcia to the Atlanta Braves for right-hander Craig McMurtry on February 2, 1987. But Leal never pitched for the Braves, opting to hang up his playing spikes.
If you examine the Blue Jays’ all-time pitching leaders, you might be surprised to find that Leal is still sixth in complete games (27), eighth in starts (151) and ninth in innings pitched (946). He finished his major league career with 51 wins and a 4.14 ERA.
When Jerry Howarth checked in with him in 1994 for a “Where Are They Now?” booklet he wrote, Leal was a partner in an auto parts company in his hometown in Venezuela, while also doubling as a coach for the Lara Cardinals of the Venezuelan Winter League. In 2006, Leal served as the bullpen coach for Venezuela at the first World Baseball Classic.
Here are five more fun facts about Luis Leal:
- He didn’t play baseball until he was 15. His favourite sport as a child was soccer.
- He pitched for the Venezuelan national team at the 1978 Pan Am Games.
- His 38 starts in 1982 are tied for the second-most in a season by a Blue Jays pitcher. He is tied with Stieb who also started 38 games that season. Clancy holds the record with 40 starts, which he also made in 1982.
- He is the first player in Blue Jays history with the initials “LL”. Luis Lopez is the only other “double L” Blue Jay.
- On May 14, 1983, he had no-hit the Cleveland Indians through five innings before the game was delayed by rain. When it resumed, reliever Roy Lee Jackson pitched the final four innings and allowed one run on one hit. So Leal and Jackson finished with a combined one-hitter.