By Fred J. Robledo
San Dimas High School’s Josh Leyland spent New Year’s Day in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he was one of the invitees to the third annual International High School Power Showcase Home Run Derby at Tropicana Field. Participants included 69 of the best high school hitters in the nation along with players from nine other countries. Leyland didn’t win it, but the senior left a lasting impression by hitting a 472-foot shot onto the roof of a restaurant in center field. It was the fifth-longest home run in the two-day competition and cemented the catcher’s status as one of the nation’s best power-hitting left-handed batters.
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Leyland in Home Run Derby
“When I got the invite I worked my butt off like I never have before,” Leyland said. “I knew there would be scouts and so many other people, I just wanted to come out and be as successful as possible.
“The funny thing is, all that work got me ready (for the high school season) and now all I’m doing is working, working and working to get better.”
Leyland has gone from confident to unconscious.
A daily nonstop workout regiment that began with his father Darren last summer in the batting cage of their backyard has turned Leyland into a hot commodity.
The 6-foot-4, 230-pounder already has committed to Washington State, but major league baseball scouts are drooling over his size and potential.
“Washington State stepped up and is the perfect fit for Josh,” Darren Leyland said.
“But we have received letters from about 25 major league teams wondering whether he’s going to sign or go to school.
“I have my own opinion about what he should do, but ultimately it’s up to Josh if he gets drafted (high enough). But hey, it’s not a bad position to be in, is it?”
It’s hard to imagine, but Leyland was a part-time hitter last year. He finished with just 10 hits in 36 at-bats and hit .370 with only two homers as his older brother Jordan received the majority of the accolades.
As a senior last year, Jordan Leyland batted .437 and earned first-team Valle Vista League honors for the third consecutive year, as well as first-team all-area honors.
Jordan signed with UC Irvine, where he is batting an impressive .455.
“I was never jealous, never envious of my older brother,” Josh said. “It’s always a fun competition between us. I always want to do better than he does, but what I learned the most from him was how hard he worked.
“I always felt like I worked hard too, but you have to take it to that next level if you want to reach that next level. Since the summer, I have been hitting balls every day in our back yard. I haven’t stopped.”
Josh is among the area’s hitting leaders in just about every statistical category. He is 23-for-40 and batting .575 with an area-best seven home runs and 24 RBIs.
In last week’s Arcadia tournament, he hit a towering grand slam against Glendora that left Saints coach Mike Regan shaking his head.
“It might have been the longest home run I have ever seen in a high school game,” Regan said. “What he’s doing right now is unreal.
“I give Glendora credit, they challenged him with a 3-2 fastball and he ripped it out of the park. He might not get another look like that the rest of the season. People just aren’t pitching to him, and when they do, he’s hitting the heck out of the ball. That patience he’s showing at the plate impresses me more than anything else.”
Josh Leyland’s quick transformation into one of the Southland’s best hitting prospects even caught Regan off-guard.
“He has tons of scouts e-mailing, calling, even a Detroit Tigers guy called me last week asking about Josh,” Regan said. “The big thing that I have noticed is he has a plan at the plate, maybe one of the best plans I have ever seen for a high school hitter. He doesn’t swing at bad pitches and he’s not just a home run guy. He’s going about 3-for-4 in every game we play.
“I have seen a ton of high school hitters over the last eight or nine years, and Josh is there with the best I’ve seen. You have to give a lot of credit to what he did to get himself ready. He has a great baseball family and they have prepared themselves well for what is happening.”
Having a batting cage in his back yard has allowed Josh to work more than ever before.
“At the park you would hit and have to shag balls and I hate shagging balls,” Josh said. “Instead of taking three hours, I can go through six buckets of balls in 45 minutes at home. It has helped me tremendously to get in a groove, and once you start tasting that success, it makes you want to work harder and harder.”
Just ask his father.
“I have thrown so much to him my arm is shot,” Darren joked. “I have been throwing to Josh and Jordan for about six years now. I never had any instruction. I was never a baseball player. I just kind of learned as we went along.
“Josh was hitting like crazy to get ready for the home run derby, whether it was cold, Christmas, it didn’t matter. We would plug our TV in the back yard and keep on going. I would say prior to the derby he hit every day for two months straight.”
Not only is Josh enjoying success, but San Dimas is 12-3 and 5-0 in league after knocking off defending league and Division IV champion Northview, 9-6, in the first of three head-to-head meetings.
“Ultimately, this is what it’s all about,” Josh said. “When you’re playing well and your team is playing well, it doesn’t get any better than that.
“We want to take the league title away from Northview and win it outright and we want to go as far as we can in CIF. I didn’t think it was possible when the year started, but I do now.
“We’re playing with a different level of confidence. I don’t know if we had the (mental) toughness to finish games last year. We were always right there, but we couldn’t finish. We have that confidence to finish games now.”
Josh also knows it will be tough for him the rest of the way.
“Are they going to pitch to me? I don’t know,” Leyland said with a confident shrug. “I have to be patient and hope I get runners on base. And when I do get pitches, I have to take advantage of it.”
There also is that other burning question. If Josh continues to raise his draft status, what will he decide at the end of the year?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m trying to stay focused on what I’m doing right now. I don’t care if it’s cold and gloomy, I’m out there hitting. I want to keep all my stats going, and keep our team going. If I can do that, everything else will fall into place.”
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