By: Nick Santoriello
It is the summer of 2014. Matt Leon is finishing up his senior season at Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. A skinny right-hander, Leon has had his share of success at the high school level. First Team All-Conference and First Team All-Area selections, two career no-hitters, and a 1.55 ERA with 85 strikeouts in only 54 innings as a senior, yet the accolades have not translated into offers from any Divion I schools.
Fast forward to May 11, 2018. Shinedown’s “Black Cadillac” begins to play from the speakers at Owen T. Caroll Field. Matt Leon jogs out from the bullpen down the left field line. He is fist bumping his teammates as he assures them.
“Let’s win one,” he says.
As he nears the mound, Leon glances to the foul pole to gather his thoughts as he always does before toeing the rubber.
“I like to look at the foul pole because every field has a foul pole and it helps me collect myself and realize where I am.”
Leon is looking to do something no other pitcher has done in the history of Seton Hall baseball: record 10 saves in a single season.
Coach Rob Sheppard hands him the ball and Leon is ready to roll. He gets the first batter to fly out to left field.
PIRATES WIN!!! Leon with a huge strikeout to strand two runners! pic.twitter.com/JJjfFe2Dwr
— Seton Hall Baseball (@SHUBaseball) February 25, 2018
Leon was not always primed to be a Pirate, but rather, a Panther. After not receiving any DI offers, the Pennsylvania native sent in his deposit to attend the University of Pittsburgh in the fall.
“I wanted to play Division I baseball or I wasn’t going to play.”
Not quite ready to hang up the cleats, Leon emailed Sheppard and Seton Hall asking for a chance to try-out for the team. His request was granted, and so, Leon’s last chance was underway.
“We met with Matt in the summer and told him in not so specific words that it’s going to be a really hard team to make. Even knowing that, Matt decided to come in and he was one of the last guys to make our roster that spring,” said Sheppard. “Since then, that’s all he needed was to get his foot in the door and he took care of the rest.”
— Seton Hall Baseball (@SHUBaseball) April 29, 2018
For Leon, the process of making the team was one of the most difficult years of his young life.
“I was so miserable. I was sick every week because I was so stressed out,” said Leon. “You’re in the dark the whole time. I didn’t get gear until maybe three quarters of the way through the fall, I didn’t get t-shirts or anything. It was tough, it was probably one of the toughest years I’ve ever had.”
Fighting an uphill battle from the start, Leon was constantly unsure of whether there would be a jersey for him come opening day.
“I wouldn’t know what the deal was, so I was going in and trying to talk to the coaches and they were like, ‘We don’t have any spots for you right now, but you can keep working out with us until the end’, so I just kept showing up.”
For Sheppard, it was Leon’s drive to keep showing up day in and day out that set him apart from other players trying to make the team.
“What makes Matt, Matt is that he’s stubborn. He’s a stubborn kid in a good sense. He is very persistent in what he wants and if he has his mind on something he’s going to work really hard to achieve it,” said Sheppard. “He’s the kind of guy that you can’t say no to because he’s going to try to prove you wrong. I think that’s been a chip on his shoulder mentality and I think that’s why he’s had the success that he has had.”
— Seton Hall Baseball (@SHUBaseball) May 6, 2018
After months of arduous training and uncertainty, Leon was finally assured he would be on the team in the spring.
“It was awesome, it was the best moment I’ve had in recent memory,” said Leon. “I was able to give my dad a call on the way to class and I remember I started tearing up a little because I was just so relieved to be out of the dark and to be able to make the team.”
Seton Hall is up on the scoreboard 4-3 after scoring the go-ahead run in the bottom of the seventh. Leon gets the second batter to strike out on a full-count offering for his 30th strikeout in 26 innings this season.
A four-year starting pitcher in high school, Leon was quickly forced to make the adjustment to coming out of the bullpen in college.
“I like it. I like the pressure. The biggest thing as a reliever is that you have to be able to get yourself motivated, up, and ready every single game,” said Leon.
— Seton Hall Baseball (@SHUBaseball) March 25, 2018
After serving as a standard relief pitcher for three years, Sheppard and the rest of his staff felt Leon was ready to make the jump to closing games out for the Pirates in his senior season.
“To be in that position where your team trusts you in a tie game or with a one-run lead, that’s the role you dream of as a reliever. All the pressure is on you and everyone looks toward you in that spot when they need something big,” said Leon. “The way I look at it, it’s the ultimate compliment like, ‘We’re giving it to him, we trust him to get the job done.'”
Leon has more than just gotten the job done this year. He leads the team with a 1.37 ERA and has been a consistent force out of the Pirates’ bullpen with opponents hitting a lowly .196 against him. For his efforts this season, Leon was awarded his very own hashtag: #LockdownLeon.
“This is my last go-round. I’ve got nothing to lose. When you’ve got nothing to lose it’s kind of scary for the other team because you’re going out there with everything you got,” said Leon.
St. John’s is down to their final out. Leon looks in for his sign, winds, and delivers. A soft ground ball to second and the subsequent throw over to first hands the Red Storm just their second Big East loss of the season.
It is now the Pirates and Red Storm who hold a share of the Big East lead after Leon shuts the door for his 10th save of the season.
BALLGAME! Matt Leon shuts St. John's down in the top of the 9th and earns the save as we take the first game of the series 4-3! Doubleheader tomorrow scheduled for 12:30 PM, Senior Day Ceremony at 11:50 AM! #HALLin pic.twitter.com/JI7v4jSC1J
— Seton Hall Baseball (@SHUBaseball) May 11, 2018
The save also propels Leon into second place all-time in Seton Hall history with 14 career saves and 84 career appearances, something Leon could have never imagined just four short years ago.
“There was a time where I didn’t even really think I could play here. Even when I was here it took me a while to convince myself that I could play here,” said Leon. “I used fear as a motivator. I don’t want to sit on the bench. I’m here now I might as well play. To see that I’ve contributed this whole time is nice to look back on.”
— Seton Hall Baseball (@SHUBaseball) May 12, 2018
“Our Seton Hall baseball tradition is really strong. There’s so many guys that have worn the uniform before Matt and have laid the groundwork but it’s tremendous to have his name up there with so many of the guys that were here before him,” said Sheppard. “It says a lot about him taking advantage of the opportunities that he had.”
Coming up on the end of his collegiate career, Leon has his sights set on one last goal: winning a Big East Championship. The idea of winning it all is so engrained in Leon’s mindset that he dreams about the opportunity to close it out for what could be the Pirates first Big East Championship since 2011.
“I had a dream last week that we were winning the Big East Championship. I was on the mound and I threw my glove up in the air. It’s literally the moment you dream of to just toss your glove up in the air and have everyone come out and dog pile,” said Leon.
Leon and the Pirates will look to bring home a ring when they travel to Mason, Ohio for the Big East Championship from May 24-27.
“If we win this, then every single year we can get together for dinner and talk about it. It brings that one team together. That’s all I want to do at this point,” said Leon.
It’s been a long journey for a skinny pitcher from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania with no Division I offers, but “Lockdown Leon” is set to lead as the anchor of the Seton Hall Pirates bullpen.