UMass baseball to rely on the moxie of Grant, LeBlanc

By Ross Gienieczko

(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

 

With 27 years of head coaching experience, 648 wins and eight Atlantic 10 Championships under his belt, it’s safe to say Massachusetts baseball coach Mike Stone has seen it all. So when he decided there weren’t going to be any captains at the start of the last few seasons, it spoke volumes about the team he was coaching and the quality of leadership amongst players.

“We haven’t had a captain in a few years because we didn’t think we had that kind of outstanding leadership available to us,” Stone said.

But for the 2015 season, the Minutemen have two captains – senior pitchers Connor LeBlanc and Andrew Grant – which speaks even louder to the character they bring to the team.

When talking to Stone, the respect he shows the senior duo and regard he hold them in is obvious.

“Connor is fearless on the mound. He’s a competitor,” Stone said. “He likes to be in a situation in a game that’s important to the outcome. Andrew is an extremely hard worker and a great kid. He brings positive character to the ballclub every day.

“The combination of those two guys is a pretty good formula for our leadership.”

A work in progress

After throwing over 142 innings over three years and starting 22 games, Andrew Grant is one of the pillars of the UMass pitching staff. But it hasn’t been an easy road to the top for the Westboro native.

As a freshman in 2012, Grant threw 22.1 innings and posted an earned run average of 5.24. After a relief appearance and two starts to open his career, his ERA ballooned to 15.63. But after four consecutive relief appearances allowing just one run total, Grant got another chance to start – and delivered. Scattering six hits and one run over 5 2/3 innings, Grant picked up his first collegiate win against George Washington.

Grant reflected on how far he’s come since that first year.

“I’ve come a long way in four years,” Grant said. “(Pitching coach Mike) Sweeney’s been a great mentor and just from a mechanics standpoint he’s brought me a long way.”

Mechanics are important, but Grant’s focus has also been on another part of pitching – the mental game.

“It’s been … the mental side of it,” Grant said. “Learning how to pitch against different guys, and going out there and just trying to have your best stuff every day.”

Grant’s improvement is a process that has taken years, and Stone has taken notice.

“Andrew has commanded the zone better. He throws harder,” Stone said. “It’s a work in progress – everyone is. But the amount of work that he’s put in has been tremendous.”

Last year, some of Grant’s progress started to show. After walking 43 batters in 2013, Grant walked just 24 as a junior while striking out 43 in 56.1 innings pitched. Opponent’s batting average against him plummeted from .288 to .236. His ERA was a career best 4.79, and a complete game against Fordham (highlighted by nine strikeouts and just one run allowed) was his best start with the Minutemen so far.

Stone lauded of Grant’s efforts on the mound, but had more to say about his character off it.

“Andrew is an extremely hard worker and a great kid,” Stone said. “He brings positive character to the ballclub every day. That type of guy is what we want to develop our people into, and he’s just a real good example of that.”

Mentally tough

The sheer fact he throws left-handed and stands 6-foot-4 means there are always a lot of expectations on the mound for Connor LeBlanc. In his time at UMass, LeBlanc has managed those expectations and been a true workhorse for the pitching staff with one key attribute – mental toughness.

Grant, who has been there the whole way, was the first to praise LeBlanc for his mentality on the mound.

“Mentally, he’s one of the best pitchers you’re going to find in the country,” Grant said. “He goes out there, he’s cool, he’s collected, and so I’ve always been impressed with the way he’s dealt with himself on the mound.”

Leading the Minutemen over the past three seasons with 180 innings pitched, LeBlanc’s bread and butter has been pitching to contact – and pitching fearlessly. LeBlanc has struck out 65 batters in his time with UMass, but walked just 60, including only 22 walks in 82.3 innings last year as a junior.

“He’s always commanded the zone very well,” Stone said. “His secondary pitches are all quality pitches. He likes to pitch against good opponents; he’s not intimidated at all.”

In fact, Stone said he usually likes to throw LeBlanc in the first game of a series against a team because the senior won’t be intimidated facing new hitters for the first time.

“He’s strong mentally,” Stone continued. “There’s no question about that. He likes to be in those situations, and hopefully that will wear off on some of the younger guys who haven’t had as much experience.”

With a 3.98 ERA across 13 starts last season, LeBlanc was consistent. He never went less than 5 1/3 innings, and allowed three runs or fewer in nine starts. In 2015, a year older and more experienced, he figures to be the rock of the pitching staff and number one starter again.

Role reversal

When Grant and LeBlanc joined the team in 2012, they joined a deep and experienced pitching staff. Led by six upperclassmen on the mound (including four seniors), the Minutemen were a solid 22-22. As freshmen, naturally, they looked to the older group as an example.

Years later, they are the players underclassmen are looking up to, a fact not lost on LeBlanc.

“Me and Andrew talk about it all the time,” LeBlanc said. “We’ll be hanging out just talking about how quick the last few years have gone, how much we used to look up to the seniors and how old they seemed to us. Now, we are them.”

It’s not just younger players that will be looking to Grant and LeBlanc. With over 320 combined innings pitched in their careers with the Minutemen, the coaching staff will be relying on the duo to be workhorses again this season.

“We’re going to be throwing a lot of innings this year but we have a pretty experienced staff that has already been there,” Grant said. “We have some freshmen that are going to step up, so it’s really just going to be a collective effort.”

Other pitchers who will see innings this year for UMass this year are juniors Tim Cassidy and Brandon Walsh, sophomores Ryan Moloney and Tommy McDonald, and whoever emerges from a group of freshmen early in the season. But in big games and tough situations, one of the senior captains spearheading the staff will likely be called upon to determine the fate of the team.

“We have a lot of older pitchers along with us, and we all take on that role,” LeBlanc said. “We know we need to be the leaders, be the workhorses who eat up a lot of innings and set a good example.”

Ross Gienieczko can be reached at [email protected]