IOWA CITY — Sometimes you just luck into one.
Rick Heller never recruited Grant Leonard. The junior relief pitcher literally just showed up at the coach’s University of Iowa office one day and asked if he could try out for Heller’s baseball team.
It was more like Leonard begged to get a tryout.
“I kind of annoyed him to give me an opportunity here,” he said. “Things worked out, and here I am ... It’s been a crazy story, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now than here.”
It hasn’t been so much a crazy story as it has been a great one. Leonard tied Iowa’s single-season record for saves last weekend in a 7-5 win over Michigan State, picking up his 13th.
The Mokena, Ill., native first attended Division III North Central College in suburban Chicago for a semester until deciding to transfer to Iowa. He was going to school in Iowa City regardless, even if he wasn’t a member of the baseball team.
“He came with a lot of good recommendations from people I trusted,” said Heller, whose Hawkeyes lost 8-6 Thursday night at Maryland to begin their final regular-season series. “They talked a lot about his character, his toughness, his work ethic. They were dead on. The kid has worked really, really hard and improved a ton.”
Leonard, a right-hander, pitched in just two games as a freshman in 2017 and posted a 2-1 record, two saves and 4.64 earned run average in 21 relief outings last season. He broke his nose and suffered a concussion in an early April game against Illinois thanks to a comebacker but only missed a week.
This season, he’s 2-1 with a fine ERA of 1.82 in 24 games. He has struck out 30 in 29 2/3 innings ... and has become a record holder.
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“It’s a cool feat, but what I’m really here for is to get this team where we want to be,” Leonard said. “What we’ve been working toward since August. To get to a regional and compete for Omaha. And if you get a couple of milestones along the way, that’s even better.”
“He just goes out and pitches,” Heller said. “He doesn’t let things affect him: the score, the pressure of the situation. He pounds the strike zone, his fastball now is up to as much as 93 (miles per hour), he has a slider he has developed and his changeup has really, really progressed in his time here. He’s a three-pitch mix guy as a closer. A lot of them are two-pitch guys. But (having three pitches) enables to get the lefties out as well as the righties.”
Leonard said he talked with former teammate Zach Daniels a lot about pitching in crunch time at the end of games. He said he learned a lot just by watching Daniels, now a minor leaguer in the Atlanta Braves organization.
There is the chance Leonard could be a Major League Baseball draft pick in June, which would make him make a decision to turn professional or return to Iowa for one more year.
“For me, personally, I just kind of think that (it’s a mindset of) I can’t be beat when I’m out there,” Leonard said. “That I’m the one on the attack. That I need to go at them, they’re not coming at me. I’m just as calm as I can possibly be out there. I just try to make myself comfortable and attack the hitters.”
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