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Jack Leiter's mound mentality serving Vanderbilt baseball entering College World Series

Aria Gerson
Nashville Tennessean

The first change-up Jack Leiter threw Saturday was just off the plate to Josh Moylan in the fourth inning. It was called a ball. But after Moylan popped out, Leiter tried the change-up again to Alec Makarewicz, another lefty hitter. The pitch faded away at 89 mph. Makarewicz swung right through it. As the game continued, Leiter mixed the offspeed pitch in more.

Leiter estimates it’s the first or maybe second time this season he has had the change-up working.

“It surprised me a little bit because the change-up’s a pitch that I’m always working on,” Leiter said. “And to see feedback from the hitter, swing and miss, was helpful.”

That’s the kind of pitcher Leiter is. Cerebral and interested in the finer details of pitching, Leiter is always tinkering and always thinking of more ways to get hitters out. His mentality has served him well on the mound since arriving in Nashville before the 2020 season. Now, along with Kumar Rocker, Leiter has helped lead Vanderbilt into the College World Series after throwing seven innings of one-run ball against East Carolina to give the Commodores (45-15) the super regional sweep at Hawkins Field.

Unlike Rocker, who guided the Commodores to the 2019 national title as a freshman, Leiter lacks postseason experience, but he has developed the mentality to have success in Omaha. Vanderbilt pitching coach Scott Brown admires the way Leiter challenges him, something many college pitchers wouldn’t dare to do.

“He’ll just ask some really good questions and some thoughtful questions that are not off the cusp,” Brown told The Tennessean. “And some of them are very innocent, but he wants, he’s curious about gaining information from people that have experience and he loves to just talk baseball and debate baseball and he might say something like, ‘I think I might want to use this pitch a little bit more, is there any reason why we haven’t?’ and we can have a discussion about it. And at the end of the day it’s a good discussion and we come to a conclusion and we move forward with it. Those types of conversations are really what I say challenges me.”

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Against a team like East Carolina that is skilled at hitting for average and getting on base, it’s vital to mix pitches to keep hitters off-balance. For Leiter, that includes starting an at-bat off with breaking balls instead of fastballs or throwing breaking balls in fastball counts. That kind of mixing is one of Leiter’s biggest strengths and on Saturday he used it to great effect.

Some of that skill came from Leiter’s dad, Al Leiter, a former MLB starter and now an analyst on MLB Network. More than just physical ability, Al preaches having the right mentality: knowing what to work on, being willing to work on it and being willing to do some of the less-fun parts of pitching such as watching film and looking at data.

Jack Leiter (10-3) also has the ability to diagnose things that went wrong during a game, allowing him to make needed adjustments. After he started a regional game against Georgia Tech last week, when he pitched well save for allowing one home run, Leiter diagnosed his exact issue in the postgame — he grooved an offspeed pitch in a hitters’ count.

Earlier in the season, Leiter had a stretch of three bad games, giving up three or more runs in each between the end of April and early May. But he figured out what was going wrong and fixed it, then was able to move on mentally.

“The ability to right himself pretty quickly now, if you look back at high school or even early in his college career, he would have some really inflated innings and it would be struggles for him to even get back centered, and he would try harder and really push himself to the max,” Brown said. “He’d find himself very fatigued early inside games and, if he managed to get out of it, it would be very expensive for him from a pitch count standpoint.

"But I’ve seen just a growth in looking at things from a positive side. … The growth now is that a bad outing isn’t as bad as it seems. People have them ...  and the other part of it is staying inside a game and competing and realizing that you don't have to be perfect every single time.”

In his SEC Tournament start against Ole Miss, Leiter struggled to locate his pitches in the second inning, loading the bases with nobody out and allowing two runs. Leiter could’ve been destined for a quick hook, but he recovered to pitch into the seventh. Though the Commodores lost the game, Leiter gave them a chance to win. Against Georgia Tech, too, Leiter didn’t let the home run rattle him. It was a bad pitch in a bad count, and he knew he wouldn’t do it again. He didn’t.

Against East Carolina, Leiter had one of those starts everything was working. He struck out 10 and flummoxed the Pirates’ lineup. But it wasn’t always destined to be like this; Leiter wrote it into existence thanks to his mentality and his newfound short-term memory.

“Because (East Carolina was) such a good team we needed a very good pitching performance and it’s very difficult sometimes to follow one great pitching performance because of the resistance you’re gonna find from the other team, and Jack has done that throughout the year,” Tim Corbin said. “He’s as good as it gets. He’s a competitive, competitive kid with good stuff and he too, loves the arena of competition and that was primary.”

Aria Gerson covers Vanderbilt athletics for The Tennessean. Contact her at agerson@gannett.com or on Twitter @aria_gerson.