Baseball

Durham Bulls’ Patrick Leonard thriving in second stint with the club

Durham Bulls third baseman Patrick Leonard runs in the bases during Monday night's home opener at Durham Bulls Athletic Park against the Charlotte Knights.
Durham Bulls third baseman Patrick Leonard runs in the bases during Monday night's home opener at Durham Bulls Athletic Park against the Charlotte Knights. Durham Bulls

So far, the second verse is much better than the first for Patrick Leonard.

Through his first five games of his second stint with the Durham Bulls, the 24-year-old Leonard has been the team’s top hitter.

His 2-for-3 performance when the Bulls beat Charlotte 7-4 in Monday night’s home opener at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, Leonard improved his batting average to .455 with 10 hits in 22 at bats.

Leonard has already produced three multi-hit games and the Bulls (4-1) aren’t even through the first week of their season.

“He’s making good adjustments,” Bulls manager Jared Sandberg said. “He’s relaxed. He’s been here before so he knows what he needs to do and what to expect. He’s not trying to do too much.”

Leonard’s first time with the Bulls last summer produced opposite results. In 42 games, he batted .198 with no home runs. He struck out 54 times in 145 plate apperances -- more than one-third of the time.

That lead to a tough conversation when Sandberg had to tell Leonard that the Rays brass wanted him to go back to Double-A Montgomery.

“He was devastated when he was sent back down to Double-A,” Sandberg said, though adding that Leonard always maintained a good frame of mind about his game.

“I went back down and got my bearings back,” Leonard said. “Coming back here, I feel like I’ve got that month or two under my belt from last year. So I’m trying to just ride that.”

Part of Leonard’s struggles could be because he was being used at different positions, from infield at first and third base to corner outfield positions in left and right field.

Sandberg is of the belief that Leonard is playing well so far because he’s only playing third base. Leonard doesn’t disagree.

“I’m very comfortable at third,” Leonard said. “Last year was about playing a bunch of different positions, some that I hadn’t played before. I’m very comfortable at third and first. It’s not that I’m not comfortable out there, it’s just that I’m way more comfortable at third. I’m happy playing third.”

Leonard is no stranger to having success at the plate in this area. Back in 2012, after Kansas City drafted him in the fifth round, he began his professional career with the Burlington Royals in the Appalachian League. As a 19-year-old, Leonard batted .251 but showed plenty of power with 14 home runs while driving 46 runs while playing third base.

That hot start drew the Rays attention and Leonard was included in the December 2012 trade that sent pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City in exchange for outfielder Wil Myers and pitchers Mike Montgomery and Jake Odorizzi.

Since then, Leonard has methodically climbed up through the Rays minor-league system, from Class A Bowling Green in 2013 to High-A Charlotte in 2014 and Double-A Montgomery in 2015.

He opened the 2016 season with the Bulls, batting .296 over his first seven games with eight hits in 27 at bats. But he hit just .173 (18 of 104) over his next 35 games and was demoted back to Double-A. In 74 games with the Biscuits, as an everyday third baseman rather than a utility man, Leonard batted .286 and earned another shot at Triple-A.

“It sucked being sent back down,” Leonard said. “I think in the long run it was good for me because I was struggling up here.”

He’s off to an even hotter start this season, albeit over a smaller sample size. He feels different -- better -- this April as opposed to a year ago.

“I don’t want to say I wasn’t confident,” Leonard said. “I want to say maybe I wasn’t used to it here? But then I went back to Double-A. I’d been there. I knew all the parks. I knew what to expect. I had to get my bearings.”

Now Leonard believes he has his bearings at Triple-A. His next task is to extend this hot start all season long to maybe earn his final promotion to the Rays.

Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC

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