If there's a learning curve to the first full season of pro ball, Brennan Leitao is ahead of it.
"I'm thinking much deeper about pitching than I have in the past," the Cardinals prospect said. "I learned a lot going to Spring Training for the first time, picking the brains of older guys and working with our pitching coordinator, Tim Leveque. That was huge for me."
In his fifth start of the year, Leitao struck out a career-high 10 and scattered five hits and a walk over eight innings in Class A Peoria's 5-0 blanking of Dayton on Friday at Dozier Park.
"This season I've been able to locate all three pitches in every start," he said. "With my fastball, I'm not going to be blowing guys away with velocity at 97, 98 [mph], but I was able to effectively locate it."
Spotting his fastball and knowing exactly where he wants to put it and realizing when to turn to his changeup or slurve has enabled the 22-year-old right-hander to post a 2.16 ERA over 33 1/3 innings this year. Leitao (2-2) also has fanned 29 compared to five walks.
"I feel like I'm catching myself thinking about things a lot more," he said. "It's more understanding different counts, really understanding how to be effective with an 88-92 mph fastball. That's a key for me, because I'm a guy who needs to locate the fastball."
In the opening frame against the Dragons, the 2015 26th-rounder issued a two-out walk to Shed Long before James Vasquez grounded a single up the middle. In the second, Jose Duarte doubled with one out, and Zack Shields started the third with an infield hit.
"The first three innings, I felt like my back was up against the wall. My [fastball] command wasn't there," Leitao said. "I have to give a lot of credit my catcher, Jose Godoy. He's caught four of my five starts and he's a really smart kid. He makes it a lot easier on me. I feel like things are really clicking with him.
"Luckily, I was able to throw my breaking ball for strikes, because I had to do that in the first couple innings. Locating that, that was a huge pitch for me tonight and I used more of my fastball and changeup in the later innings, so I think [seeing] the breaking ball earlier kept them off-balance."
Finding a groove after Shields' hit, the Cal State Sacramento product retired eight in a row before Shields got to him again in the fifth, this time for a triple. Leitao got a punchout to strand him at third, then worked a 1-2-3 sixth and seventh, which he ended by fanning Duarte and Ed Charlton in succession.
"The pitch [that struck out Charlton] wasn't exactly where I wanted it," he said, "but I got away with it because the previous pitch set it up so well."
Leitao shrugged off yet another Shields knock -- a single to right field -- to turn in an uneventful eighth, marking the second time this year he's been allowed to go that far. He threw 85 pitches, 65 for strikes.
"We knew coming [into the season] I'd be able to throw a little more," he said. "I threw a lot in college, so this wasn't the first time I'd be extending myself late into the game. It feels great knowing that if it's a close ballgame in the fifth, sixth, seventh innings, [manager] Joe Kruzel and [pitching coach Dernier] Orozco are going to trust me and give me the ball."
Godoy was 2-for-4 with a double and three RBIs, while Chris Chinea scored three times, doubled and knocked in a run.