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March 20, 2013

Wade LeBlanc vying for consistency in final week of camp

By Steph Rogers

JUPITER -- Ozzie Guillen’s endorsement of Wade LeBlanc as the ‘Cy Young of spring training’ didn’t earn him a spot in the Marlins rotation in 2012. He was sent packing for New Orleans to begin his season with the triple-A Zephyrs.

In Jupiter, LeBlanc looks just as comfortable on the mound as he did one year ago, only the circumstances have changed. The pitching scenery around him is younger in age, in experience level, and the most glaring mark is that LeBlanc is out of options.

On Wednesday, the Washington Nationals brought all of their weapons in Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, and reigning National League Rookie of the Year, Bryce Harper.

“That’s who I’m going to be facing during the season,” said LeBlanc, after his outing. “I’m glad they brought those guys over so I can see what I need to work on and see what works and then just try to improve on the rest of the stuff.”

For arguably his biggest test of the spring, the only left-handed candidate for a spot in the Marlins rotation pitched five innings, and allowed a spring-high six earned-runs on seven hits. He struck out four in the 7-5 loss.

All of LeBlanc’s undoings were uncharacteristic, and a relentless Nationals’ offense didn’t leave an inch of room for error. Loading the bases in the third, Harper scored two runners on a double.

The hurler issued back-to-back walks in the fifth inning after a three-up, three-down fourth inning, and recent history repeated itself with Harper driving in two more runs for the Nats.

“When good hitters like that are ahead in the count, they can pretty much make you pay whatever they want,” LeBlanc said of his troubles.

The most compelling thing about the lefty is his recognition of what’s going wrong, and how little time there is left to get things right.

“The fourth, I feel like is more of who I am and definitely who I need to be. Get ahead, establish strikes early, [and] stay aggressive,” he said.

“I was up a little more than I’d like to be and a little more than I can afford to be. That’s one thing we’ve got to get straightened out before Apr. 1. We’ve got one more start [and] one more bullpen.”

Not able to rely on his velocity, LeBlanc’s ability to move the ball and change speeds are what makes him an appealing part of Mike Redmond’s rotation.

“When he does that, and we’ve seen him do that, he’s really good and he’s able to eat up some innings for us,” the manager said.

Redmond jokes that he would have liked to have things set in stone two weeks ago, but in the final week of uncertainties, there's a case for LeBlanc to fall nicely into place in the Marlins rotation to open the season.

"I like having a lefty in there. I think he fits in that rotation and gives you a different look," Redmond said. "Especially if you bring him in after a power guy like [Nathan] Eovaldi. I like that."

With New Orleans, LeBlanc struck out nearly a batter an inning in his 16 starts. When he was called up to Miami, he carried zeros through his first seven appearances out of the bullpen, and later transitioned his work into nine starts for the club. Through 68 2/3 innings, he finished with a 3.67 ERA, the lowest of his five seasons in the majors.

The biggest takeaway from the spring will be LeBlanc’s ability to stay consistent, and to remedy the jams he finds himself in -- like the third and fifth innings against the Nationals on Wednesday. LeBlanc worked his pitch count to 84 in Wednesday's contest, throwing 57 for strikes.

“That’s what it’s about in the big leagues; it’s taking that ball every five days and giving us a chance to win,” Redmond said. “When you have young guys out there pitching, that’s sometimes the difference...the consistency in the strike zone.”