Looking back at Grant Leonard’s career as he prepares for his final season

The Hawkeye closer is second in career saves in program history and set the single-season save record back in 2019.


Jenna Galligan

Iowa pitcher Grant Leonard throws a pitch during the seventh inning of the afternoon Iowa vs Rutgers game at Duane Banks Field on Saturday, April 7, 2019. The Hawkeyes defeated the Scarlet Knights 9-5.

Will Fineman, Sports Reporter

In the spring of 2016, freshman Grant Leonard walked the University of Iowa campus as a new transfer from North Central College whose days on the pitcher’s mound were likely behind him.

But Leonard got a tryout with the Hawkeyes in the fall of 2016.

“I basically had to take each day as it was and do what I could to stick out,” Leonard said. “I guess I did enough for them to keep me around because that spring of 2017 was my first full time being on the team.”

Leonard made two appearances for the Hawkeyes in the spring of 2017, but 2018 was a different story. He made 21 appearances, amounting to a 2-1 record, 4.64 ERA, two saves, and 23 strikeouts in 21.1 innings.

Besides the statistics and appearances, something else changed for Leonard from 2017, which was developing a wipeout slider.

“I stayed around Iowa City to train to get stronger and use our abundance of technology that is available to pitchers,” Leonard said. “That is when I actually developed my slider and developing that kind of helped solidify my role in high leverage situations.”

The 2019 season was the year of Leonard. With a fastball, a hard slider, and a progressing changeup, the stage was set for Leonard to succeed in the bullpen.

Leonard finished his 2019 campaign with a 2-3 record, 3.37 ERA, and 37 strikeouts in 34.2 innings. He was named second-team All-Big Ten relief pitcher and made the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Midseason Closer of the Year List.

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Plus, he set the Iowa single-season record for saves after converting all 14 of his attempts.

In March 2020, Leonard was met with an overwhelming feeling of disappointment and shock as he heard the news that the rest of the season would be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He made the decision to hope for the best in the shortened MLB draft and take a finance job in Chicago if pro aspirations didn’t work out. But while getting ready for the draft, Leonard was met with a dilemma.

“The more I was training, the more I was around the guys, and the more I was like I completely made the wrong decision,” Leonard said. “I absolutely did a 180 and flipped my mindset from ‘I don’t know if going for a sixth year would be the best option’ to ‘that is absolutely my best option and I cannot leave my teammates hanging like that.’”

Now that he’s returning, he will have the chance to set a program record. Leonard currently has two fewer saves than Kurt Belger, Iowa’s all-time leader with 22 career saves.

“Our number one priority is to win baseball games,” Iowa baseball pitching coach Robin Lund said. “But you know he could hit a number that nobody has ever done in the history of the program, so obviously we get excited about that.”

Since Leonard isn’t taking classes at the university this fall, he can’t attend fall practices or use team facilities. Lund said that he and the coaching staff have laid out a program for Leonard to increase his velocity.

While Leonard has the opportunity to achieve what no Iowa pitcher has done before, he said he’s only thinking about what the team could accomplish in the spring.

“Our goal is a Big Ten championship, both regular season and tournament,” Leonard said. “Our team is very capable of making a push towards Omaha this year because we have a lot of talented guys and a lot of experienced guys.”

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