After rough start, Jose De Leon has come on strong for Southern

As the infield at Lee-Hines Field underwent a preseason facelift, the Southern baseball team was limited in the kind of workouts it could do.

The pitchers spent most of their time throwing flat-ground bullpen sessions
inside Seymour Gymnasium, or conducting long-toss drills in a nearby parking lot.

But Jose De Leon never

“If you practice in conditions you’re not used to, you get more prepared to do the job,” the junior right-hander said. “Once you get to the field, you’re mentally tougher.”

De Leon has recovered from a slow start to show just that.

He heads into this weekend’s series against Arkansas-Pine Bluff with a 2-0 mark and 1.50 ERA in Southwestern Athletic Conference play.

He has pitched at least seven innings in all four of his Western Division starts, and in only one start — a 10-7 win at Grambling — has he surrendered more than a single run.

De Leon, with a 2-2 mark overall and a 3.52 ERA, will pitch the second game of a doubleheader Saturday to start the Arkansas-Pine Bluff series. Action concludes with a single game Sunday.

Southern (11-10, 7-5) took two of three from the Lions (8-18, 3-5) in Pine Bluff, Ark., earlier this season.

De Leon won the first game of that series, pitching seven innings in a 2-0 victory.

“When I get on the mound, I always try to give my team a chance to win and go as deep as I can go,” De Leon said. “As a starter, you only get to pitch one game out of the series.”

De Leon was one of the top pitchers in the SWAC last year, going 8-3 with a 2.62 ERA.

He has recaptured that form as a junior, but only after taking losses in his first two starts of the season.

De Leon lasted just 3.2 innings in a 13-9 loss to Stillman College on opening weekend. A week later, he left a 6-4 loss to Alabama State in the MLB Urban Invitational with two outs in the fifth.

“He was just beginning,” Southern coach Roger Cador said. “Because we didn’t have our field, he just couldn’t pitch the innings we normally would pitch in intrasquad so he could be prepared for the season opener.”

The early struggles leave De Leon’s overall numbers a bit modest.

Some bad luck is also to blame.

Of the 12 runs De Leon gave up during nonconference play, three came courtesy of a grand slam by Alabama State’s Waldyvan Estrada, the next batter up after reliever John Thigpen replaced De Leon with the bases loaded and the score tied 1-1 in the fifth

“If you don’t want your numbers to get up like that when they bring in a reliever,” De Leon said with a smile, “then don’t put anybody on base. That’s part of the game. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

Opponents in Western Division play are hitting just .181 against De Leon, who has 23 strikeouts in his four conference starts.

A key cog in Southern’s hopes of pursuing another SWAC title, De Leon never could have envisioned such a scenario until a few years ago.

Cador spotted De Leon while scouting a prospect showcase in De Leon’s native Puerto Rico.

De Leon got the start that day and struck out the side in the first inning. When he returned to the dugout, Cador was waiting with a business card.

Cador then approached the pitcher’s parents in the stands and handed each of them a card as well.

“Being the lawyer he is, the dad had very little to say,” Cador recalled. “He told me we’d talk later.”

Cador got his man, and now De Leon is three years into a stellar college career.

He hopes his hot start to SWAC play is a precursor of more good things still to come.

“It’s always exciting to play the conference games,” De Leon said. “We’ve played four series already, and I think I’ve done a good job along with the team. SWAC play is different than anything else. The guys you play against, they play so hard, and they get tough.
Really tough.”