Rob Walton isn’t sure how the extra motivation will affect Ben Leeper.
Leeper might step on the mound with pure adrenaline rushing through him and focus on throwing the fastest ball he can, distracting himself from concentrating on his command. Or he might use this season as an opportunity to carefully think about every pitch he delivers and present himself as a formidable foe for each batter he faces.
Walton, the Oklahoma State baseball team’s pitching coach, said it depends on how Leeper approaches his fifth year with the Cowboys.
“I think if he puts (on) a mindset, ‘I’m going to prove to everybody I can really pitch,’ then you’re going to see somebody really special,” Walton said. “If he’s just wanting to go out there and trying to throw by everybody, then we could have some difficult games.”
During the previous season, OSU fell just short of a men’s College World Series berth, so Leeper returns with the goal of helping his team earn the opportunity it narrowly missed. In the Cowboys’ third Super Regional game against Texas Tech, Leeper stood on the mound as the Red Raiders paved their road to Omaha.
In the bottom of the eighth inning, Kurt Wilson blasted a three-RBI home run to right-center field, giving Texas Tech the 8-6 lead that propelled them to a CWS appearance.
It wasn’t the way Leeper would choose to end his OSU career, but it didn’t have to be.
“I think we have some unfinished business from last year,” Leeper said. “We were six outs away from Omaha, and just being the one on the mound that didn’t get it done, I want to be able to make up for that and go back to Omaha this year.”
Leeper, a right-handed pitcher from Southlake, Texas, has eligibility left because he redshirted in 2016, his freshman year. After starting twice, Leeper couldn’t pitch for the rest of the season because of Tommy John surgery.
Although the injury kept him from having an active role, that year inspired him because he saw what it took for his team to advance to the big stage. The Cowboys made it to Omaha, something they hadn’t done since 1999, and would have played in the championship game if they had defeated Arizona one more time.
Of all the players on OSU’s roster, only Leeper was part of that CWS team. As the one who has been a Cowboy the longest, he is reminded of his early days at OSU when he watches Walton mentor the young pitchers. Walton is still helping Leeper, too, so Leeper can control his pitches instead of just throwing for speed.
“It’s exciting in a way,” Walton said, “because if he puts it together, (he is) a dominant guy.”
During the past season, Leeper and Peyton Battenfield settled into roles as the Cowboys’ closers, but Battenfield left after the Houston Astros drafted him in the summer. Coach Josh Holliday said Leeper, who had a 4.31 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 2019, could likely be a closer again, though a couple of freshmen also have potential to pitch in the final innings.
“When Ben’s healthy, he’s got really good stuff,” Holliday said. “And it’s just a matter of him getting in shape and getting ready to go. We’ll definitely trust him, for sure. He’s been there and handled big situations, and that’s why he came back for his fifth year was to build on the season he had last year.”
Leeper said he loves pitching as a closer, and the Cowboys’ new home makes his last season sweeter. He said O’Brate Stadium, which will open when OSU faces TCU on March 20, is a reason he chose to stick with the Cowboys, and his bond with his teammates also influenced him. If the season goes according to his goal, then they will share the experience of playing in the CWS spotlight.
“I didn’t want to leave college on a bad note after last year,” Leeper said. “And so I feel like I had something to prove to come back, so I’m really looking forward to the start of the season.”