More comfortable Patrick Leonard succeeding in second stint with Bulls

Demoted after two months last season, Leonard looks ready to stick around awhile

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal
Storm clouds part and the sun sets in the third inning of the minor league baseball game between the Durham Bulls and the Charlotte Knights at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham

DURHAM — For the second straight year, Patrick Leonard opened the season with the Durham Bulls. For the first time, however, he feels like he belongs.Leonard is the often-forgotten piece of the Rays’ blockbuster trade with Kansas City prior to the 2013 season. Tampa dealt starting pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis for a treasure trove of prospects, including outfielder Wil Myers, who won A.L. Rookie of the Year with the Rays, Mike Montgomery, who picked up a World Series ring with the Cubs last season, and Jake Odorizzi, a member of Tampa’s starting rotation.Leonard is the only player acquired by Tampa who hasn’t yet made it to the big leagues.He made his Triple-A debut with the Bulls last season and struggled through the first two months. When he was finally demoted to Double-A Montgomery, Leonard was hitting .198, with twice as many strikeouts (54) as hits (26).”He took it as a positive,” Rays manager Jared Sandberg said of Leonard being sent down a level. “He went down there and played very very well and earned the right to come back here.””He’s definitely earned the right to stay,” Sandberg added.In the first week of his second stint with the Bulls, Leonard is among the International League’s leaders in RBI. He’s hitting .464 with three doubles, three steals, a homer and 10 RBI.”He’s just more comfortable,” Sandberg said.The soft-spoken Leonard tried to downplay his hot start.”I’m doing good,” he said. “I’m seeing the ball well, having fun.”His struggles last year could have intimidated Leonard, but, much like his demotion, he looks at it as a positive.”I think it helped just having those two months under my belt from last year,” he said. “Toing down to Montgomery just kind of reinforced things, I guess. I had experienced success at that level already. I’d done well there before. When I went back there, it kind of got me back to myself. Coming here I have that experience under my belt now.”Leonard also has the experience of a successful spring in big league camp. He hit .303 with a 1.040 OPS, five doubles and two home runs for the Rays in spring training.Leonard also has a home on the field, which helps put his mind at ease.”He’s playing third base,” Sandberg said. “So he’s comfortable there.”Last season, while adjusting to Triple-A pitching, Leonard was also playing four different positions, including two that were brand new to him.”I think I played about an equal number of games at third, first, left field and right,” Leonard said. “I don’t want to blame that for what I was doing wrong last year, but I like third. That definitely helps take the pressure off, because I’d never played outfield before. I’m not thinking about what I have to do out there. I’m familiar with third.”Along with the demotion, Leonard got word that he’d be at third to stay.”When I went down to Montgomery, I think I played the outfield for the first series and then third base the rest of the time.””When you’re comfortable with your defensive position, it helps,” Sandberg said. “Last year, he moved around so much. It’s just hard for a young player to do that. He’s comfortable paying third. He’s working good at bats. He’s hitting with two strikes. He’s driving the ball all over the field.””I’ll say it every night,” Sandberg said. “He was my pick to click before the season started.”