If Leonard’s statement is correct, than he’s the one setting the lead. Leonard is having an outstanding year for the Panthers, with a .455 batting percentage, along with a team leading 56 RBIs. His Panthers sit at second in the Big East, a spot not many within the conference expected them to be in the pre-season.
“All year, we have been hitting the ball well,” explained Leonard about the team’s performance. “If one guy has a bad at bat, we can pick it up and make it up for the team.”
Leonard not only credits his team’s bats for their surprising season thus far, but the atmosphere at Trees Field, their home field. “Other teams struggle here,” he admits. “We get excited to play at home. We are comfortable hitting here, while other teams are not.”
While Leonard’s offensive capabilities have been an important part of the Panther’s lineup in past seasons (he finished third in the team last year for hits), he made some key strategy changes in preparation for his junior season.
“I worked on pitch recognition in the off-season,” Leonard explained. “I need to learn not to wait for the pitch I like, and work with what pitchers’ pitch.”
It’s not just his hot bat that is setting Leonard apart from the remainder of the Big East, but his own pitching. He has pitched in ten games so far this year, with an ERA of 3.66.
“I have pitched for all my life, and I love it,” Leonard remarked. “Sometimes it’s hard to pitch the next day after playing a whole game at third. Sometimes it’s hard to come into close at the end of the game when you’ve played the whole game. But I’m excited to do it.”
Leonard’s pitching and hitting power combo was on display during last weekend’s series at West Virginia, a rival of Pitt. He batted .640 last week, scoring twelve RBIs, three home runs, a triple and three doubles. Five of those RBIs game during the Panthers 24-9 win on Sunday. Leonard also earned his sixth save of the season during the Saturday game of the series, striking out two batters.
“This past weekend felt the most comfortable, and I think I hit the best,” he admitted. “Our team was more aggressive and exciting, and I think it was one of our best performances of the season.”
The Panthers will look to continue those high-scoring ways against the Big East leading UConn team this weekend at home. The weekend series is a battle for the conference, with just a few weeks left in the season, and two teams separated by just one game at the top of the standings. “UConn has some really good pitchers,” warned Leonard. “This weekend, it’ll be important for us to keep doing what we’ve been doing all year.”
The Dawson, Pennsylvania native has a cheering section that doesn’t have to travel very far to see him play. His family lives “not even an hour” from campus, meaning his father, former Baltimore Orioles first round draft pick John Leonard, sees his son take the field on a regular basis.
“(Having him around) has been really good,” admits Leonard. “When I think I’ve had a bad game, it’s good to talk to him. My dad gives me a lots of good baseball advice. It’s mental advice, not just physical baseball advice. He helps me in all aspects of the game.”
It should come in handy to have his father around this summer, since Leonard’s stats has him receiving significant MLB Draft buzz. Leonard plays coy when asked about the draft and his summer plans. “My summer is wide open right now,” says Leonard, who spent the last few summers in the Cal Ripken League in Maryland, and was named the #3 prospect in the entire league by Baseball America after last summer’s play. “In terms of the draft, I’m just going to let things fall into play.”
Until then, Leonard and the Panthers are looking to keep their high level of play going through the Big East playoffs. The Panther’s will keep expecting big things out of Leonard’s bat and on the pitcher’s mound.