When you ask ballplayers about their outside interests, it’s not unusual for them to express an interest in hunting. In that regard, Kernels’ pitcher Randy LeBlanc fits in with the crowd.
It’s when you ask what he hunts that LeBlanc begins to vary from the norm.
He’ll tell you he spent most of his offseason fishing and duck hunting, with a little deer hunting thrown in. Although, “my dad does more deer hunting than I do,” he says.
After a pause though, he adds the kicker.
“I’ve been gator hunting a few times. A couple of years ago, my cousin got a tag and we got one that was ten feet.“
LeBlanc hails from Covington, Louisiana, though while his offseason activities might be right in line with his Cajun heritage, you’d barely know it to speak to him.
“I’ve had people tell me up here that I don’t have any kind of accent,” he said. “People down south tell me I have an accent. It’s different than an Alabama accent. I’m definitely Cajun. My dad grew up in Cajun-land.”
You can take the boy out of Cajun-land, but it’s not so easy, apparently, to take the Cajun-land out of the boy.
In all the years the Minnesota Twins have been conducting spring training in Florida, they’ve certainly dealt with a wide variety of minor disciplinary issues with their ballplayers. Boys will be boys, after all.
But this spring, LeBlanc and fellow Louisiana native (and former Kernels pitcher) Ryan Eades may have been among the first Twins farmhands to get talked to about messing with the local alligators.
“Me and Ryan got in some trouble messing with some of the ones in Florida during spring training,” LeBlanc admitted with a small smile. “We had a meeting about it.”
“Everybody’s so scared of them,” he added, in a way that made it sound like he couldn’t quite grasp why that would be the case.
You can hardly blame the Twins, though, for discouraging LeBlanc from “messing with” alligators.
Despite being relegated to the often anonymous role of middle relief pitcher, LeBlanc is opening eyes this summer with the Kernels. He took a string of 26 consecutive scoreless innings of relief work in to the tenth inning of Friday night’s game against the Quad Cities River Bandits, a team high for the season that he shared with one of the Kernels’ closers, Trevor Hildenberger.
That string might have extended to 27 games, but for a line drive in to the outfield that was a single misplayed in to a triple. The result was LeBlanc’s first loss of the season, as Cedar Rapids fell to Quad Cities 4-3 in ten innings.
As rare as the loss was for LeBlanc, almost as rare was the fact that LeBlanc worked just one inning in the game.
The 6’ 4” right hander has made 19 appearances this season for Cedar Rapids and all but two of them have involved more than one inning of mound work. His 42 and 1/3 innings leads all non-starters for the Kernels.
The Twins drafted LeBlanc out of Tulane University in New Orleans with their tenth round pick in the 2014 draft.
Those who follow the Twins minor league organization closely know that they’ve had a pattern of drafting hard throwing college relievers with the intention of trying to turn them in to starting pitchers.
The Twins have seemingly done just the opposite with LeBlanc, who was almost exclusively a starting pitcher during his college career at Tulane, but has been used only in relief roles since signing with the Twins.
“I made a couple of relief appearances (in college), but other than that, I started my entire life,” he said. “I’d never done any relief, not consistent relief. Last year (at rookie level Elizabethton) was definitely the first time I’ve done that. But I was fine doing it, comfortable doing it. Whatever the Twins feel is my best role is what I want to do.”
LeBlanc was drafted in the 16th round of the 2010 draft by the Florida Marlins after his senior year of high school, but chose to attend Tulane, rather than sign with the Marlins.
“They made me a pretty big offer. That was before the slotting stuff,” he recalled. “It was definitely a big decision to turn down the money and go to school, but I don’t regret that for the world. I enjoyed my four years of college. It was definitely a lot of fun. New Orleans is a great city. I love it.”
That’s easier for LeBlanc to say now than it might have been after his first season of college ball.
“I had Tommy John (elbow ligament surgery) my freshman year of college. I actually tore it in my third start. I ended up having surgery a week later and was out the rest of the year.
“Came back the next year and struggled a little bit, just didn’t have quite the same stuff. I say I struggled, but it definitely could have been worse, don’t get me wrong.
“Did a little better my junior year, went undrafted after that year. Had a couple of phone calls with some offers, but went back to school. I had a really good red-shirt junior year and got drafted by the Twins.”
So, after four years in Big Easy, LeBlanc found himself in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in April.
New Orleans and Cedar Rapids – pretty much the same thing, right? No, not so much.
“When I flew up to Minneapolis to sign last year, that was the farthest I had ever been north in my life,” a smiling LeBlanc recalled. “I would assume this (Cedar Rapids) is probably the second farthest.
“The games this year in Appleton, when it was snowing for two days, I’d never seen snow before. It was the first snow I’d ever seen. It’s been a trip. That was the coldest I’d ever pitched in, for sure. Man, it was cold. The wind was just howling the whole time. It was miserable.
“I do a lot of hunting and fishing in the offseason, so I’m used to being out in the cold, but not snow cold, not like that.”
The climate may not be familiar to LeBlanc, but if his performance this season is any indication, he’ll have no problem adjusting to pitching in Target Field someday.
LeBlanc has notched a 1.70 ERA in 42 and 1/3 innings over 19 appearances for the Kernels.
“I had a really good first month of April,” he recalled.”Then we started May and I kind of had a little rough stretch for about two weeks. Ever since then, I’ve had a little better command up and down in the zone and I think that’s the biggest thing.
“I’ve been throwing well. A couple times, I guess, during this little streak or whatever, I haven’t had my best stuff at all. Basically, I’ve just made pitches when I’ve had to, able to get out of jams, that’s the best way to describe it. I’m not out there just dominating everybody and striking everybody out. Just making pitches when I have to.”
LeBlanc is also quick to point out that he and his fellow Kernels pitchers have benefited this season from some pretty solid defensive efforts behind them.
“We’ve played a ton of defense. TJ (White) and Nick (Gordon) and the whole left side of the infield, that’s where the majority of my balls go, to that side. So they’ve done an incredible job and Pat (Kelly) has done a great job up the middle.
“We’ve had guys mixing all over the place at first base. Brett (Doe) has never played first base in his life and he finds himself over there and he’s doing a really good job. It definitely helps having good defense behind us.”
LeBlanc uses a three-pitch mix on the mound and, like a lot of young pitchers, he came in to the season with an agenda.
“Originally, coming up here, I was working on the breaking ball. It’s gotten much better. I’m throwing a slider, It’s kind of a slider or a slurve, I guess. I’ve gotten a lot of swings and misses with it.
“But, I mean, I’m a sinkerball guy. I throw sinkers down and in to most people. That’s probably my best pitch; that or my change up. My change up’s my out pitch. If I need a swing and a miss, I go to my change up. But most of my success is just getting ground balls.”
While LeBlanc isn’t unhappy with his middle relief role, he wouldn’t exactly be opposed to getting a shot at a rotation spot at some point, either.
His Kernels pitching coach, Henry Bonilla, is in LeBlanc’s corner on that issue, too.
“I’ve been pulling for it,” Bonilla said. “I’ve been putting that thought in their (the front office) heads that he can start, he wants to start.”
His success out of the pen may be working against the righty’s chances of changing roles, however. Sometimes you don’t mess with what’s going well.
“I just think he’s having so much success right now,” Bonilla added, “that you just kind of say, ‘just keep going.’”
LeBlanc says all the right things when he’s asked about his role now and in the future.
“I think that Henry has talked about it a little bit to some of the guys up above us making the decisions. But I’m not sure what they’re doing. I told them at the beginning of the year I’ll do whatever they want me to do that’s going to help me to move up. Whatever will get me to the big leagues, I want to do. Whatever, starting, closing, throwing relief, long relief, whatever it is. So whatever they feel comfortable with me doing, I’ll do.
“They might ask me to start here in three weeks, I have no idea. I’d be fine doing that, though, I’ve started my whole life.”
Many starting pitchers pick up a few miles per hour on their fastballs when they start working out of the bullpen, but LeBlanc said that’s not historically been the case with him.
“It’s actually the other way around,” he said. “I threw harder as a starter. I threw harder as the games went on in college.”
He has no explanation for why that might be the case.
“I have no idea. It was like that in high school and it was like that in college. I don’t know, that’s the weirdest thing.
“When I was getting drafted, (scouts) were like, ‘so if you threw in relief, you could throw a couple miles per hour harder,’ and I’m like, ‘yeah!’ I figured it would be around the same. Definitely not going to tell them, ‘no’.”
Whatever his role may be during the second half of the Kernels’ season, he’s been a major contributor to the Kernels’ success, so far, and his pitching coach recognizes that.
“He’s been doing everything we ask,” Bonilla said. “He’s been a big glue to the middle innings right now.”