IOWA CITY, Ia. — As the Houston sun relentlessly scorched the Schroeder Park turf, all Grant Leonard could do was watch from afar. The Iowa freshman was stuck in the stands, prohibited from the dugout while his Hawkeye teammates soaked in last season’s regional appearance.
An NCAA rule limits the number of players who can be on the playing field at one time during the postseason, and Leonard, who hadn’t traveled to the Big Ten Tournament the weekend before, was the odd man out. A discouraging twist to an otherwise joyous time for Iowa baseball.
“I knew I was on the border,” said Leonard, who made just two appearances in 2017. “It ended up being between me and another pitcher for the last reliever spot, so I kind of knew that could happen. When I heard the news, it was tough to not be out there with the guys.
“But if I’m down there in Houston, I’m going to support my team, do whatever I can to be a good teammate.”
Therein lies the crux of Leonard’s sophomore rise, from forgotten man to now one of Rick Heller’s most trusted bullpen pieces. A wipeout slider and an improved fastball have certainly helped the surge, but Leonard’s productive attitude through months of futility headlines the ascension.
If Iowa (20-10, 5-3 Big Ten) is locked in a close game late this weekend at Nebraska (15-16, 2-6), don’t be surprised if Heller leans on Leonard to take the Hawkeyes home.
“He’s just kind of been laying in the weeds the whole time,” Iowa pitching coach Desi Druschel said. “Some people, they lay in the weeds, and that’s exactly what they do — they lay there. But Grant was always working, always working.
“He had a lot of times where he probably could’ve said, ‘This is just not going to work,’ but he didn’t. He worked every day, and it’s pretty exciting for everyone to see what he’s doing right now.”
Heller has developed a track record of pulling players from baseball obscurity and turning them into valuable weapons, but Leonard might be the most impressive project yet.
The right-hander barely earned a walk-on spot in the 2016 fall, then spent a freshman season full of watching. It would’ve been easy, even understandable, to go another direction.
It’s not like Leonard was a role player stuck behind some crucial upperclassmen, with a clear route to increased playing time up ahead. He was straight buried on the depth chart, lost in a crowded bullpen that brought back nearly everyone in 2018.
But here’s a lesson on determination.
“It comes from the ground up — once you’re a good teammate, good things start happening to you,” Leonard said, reciting one of Heller’s core values inside the Iowa program. “If you keep staying positive and don’t sulk, good things are going to happen. I just kind of took that to heart to go along with my mentality too.
“I’ve never been a quitter, never been a sulker. I just took it as it is and tried to do what I could to get better.”
It was a gradual climb up the pitching mountain.
Leonard didn’t make the Taiwan trip for the World University Games, but an offseason planted in the weight room saw 10 to 15 pounds added. That led to a nice increase in fastball velocity, from mid-80s to high-80s/low-90s.
Leonard was now in the ballpark — but his arsenal needed more.
With the help of fellow reliever Shane Ritter, Leonard slowly transformed a somewhat decent breaking ball into a devastating slider that can freeze even the league’s most potent hitters.
“I remember in the indoor, we were watching him throw a simulated game,” Heller said, “and it was like, ‘Whoa, that (slider) is really good.’ We had even seen some flashes of some 85 (miles per hour) sliders. It’s been pretty consistent in the 82-83 range, but every once in a while, it’d get up to 85, 86. That’s a different deal.”
Even with a repertoire up to Big Ten standards, Leonard lacked the experience in Division I baseball games. Bullpen and side-session consistency is crucial in development — but when the bright lights flip on and your team needs pivotal outs, can you deliver?
Heller didn’t wait long to find out.
With Iowa glaring down defeat in its season-opener versus Toledo, the Hawkeyes turned to Leonard in a ninth-inning pinch. Bases loaded, one out, down a run. Zach Daniels had just created a mess. Iowa needed Leonard to clean it up.
A strikeout and a flyout to right squashed the Toledo threat. The Hawkeyes walked off with two runs in the bottom half to get the season rolling.
It was the first of many high-pressure scenarios on Leonard’s 2018 resume. The college game doesn’t really provide enough opportunities to have a true “closer” like the major leagues, but peeking at Leonard’s game log this season reveals Iowa is trusting him late as much as anyone.
“I just know that that’s his makeup,” Heller said. “He wasn’t going to be scared. I knew there were high-profile guys on his travel team, but you know who they went to when they pitched a big team.
“It was Grant. I remember them telling me that when he was coming in. ‘Don’t discount the stuff. He’s going to go out there and compete.’ And it’s been dead-on true.”
Of Leonard’s team-high 15 appearances, 12 of them have been scoreless outings. One rough showing at UNLV — three runs in 1/3 of an inning — has his ERA (3.65) a little distorted, but the effectiveness extends beyond the figures.
Ten times Leonard has taken the mound with the Hawkeyes up or down by no more than three. In seven of those 10 outings, the sophomore entered in the sixth inning or later with Iowa either tied or ahead by three runs or fewer.
Although not every one of those can be defined as a true “save situation,” it’s vividly clear the Hawkeyes have unwavering faith in their 5-foot-11 right-hander.
That’s remained steady even after a recent hiccup. A comebacker drilled Leonard in the face during Iowa’s series-finale win over Illinois, landing him in concussion protocol with a broken nose.
Leonard missed the Ohio State series and will have to wear an athletic mask for the next three to four weeks. The slightest routine disruption can rattle even the most effective pitcher. But the Hawkeyes have no doubt Leonard will remain unrattled.
“There’s just a calmness to him,” Druschel said. “No situation is too big for him.”
If Iowa is to climb back to a third regional in four years, Leonard’s emergence will be atop the list of reasons why.
He won’t be watching from the stands this time around.
Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting, Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.