By Todd Dybas The News Tribune
SEATTLE — The pink backpack tucked into a corner of Dominic Leone’s locker is more symbolic than functional.
It works for Leone, a hard-throwing Seattle Mariners rookie, since the right-hander is in charge of drinks in the bullpen.
The pink backpacks lugged by rookies to the bullpen change from season-to-season. In the past, Hello Kitty bags were the choice. Leone’s is straight up pink, with “Bullpen rookie goodie bag” embroidered on it. He fills it with Gatorade and water bottles.
His locker is next to the team’s clubhouse entrance. Much changeover occurs at this locker, often used by the moving pieces in Seattle’s bullpen when players are called up or sent out. Leone’s 1.69 earned run average and 10 strikeouts in his first 102/3 big league innings is a good start toward keeping the spot his for some time.
“A very dominating young man,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said. “I think he’s got a very bright future. I think he’s going to be a late-inning guy very, very soon.”
Leone was assigned to Tacoma despite a strong effort in spring training. He was hardly unpacked when Chris Grywnn, the Mariners’ director of player development, called him. Seattle had seen enough from Hector Noesi and designated him for assignment April 4. Leone, a 16th-round pick in 2012 out of Clemson who played 19 games for the Class A Everett AquaSox and had pitched just 18 innings at the Double-A level, was coming up to replace Noesi.
Leone called his dad. Once the announcement was official, he began to hear from and contact others. He couldn’t be happier to walk in every day removed from the dusty bus rides of the minor leagues and see that pink backpack.
“I was shocked. I was pumped. I was excited,” Leone said. “It was unreal to get that call and realize, ‘This is it. This is your opportunity to go up and do what you have been working for your whole life.’”
In Peoria, Ariz., as a non-roster invitee at spring training, Leone, 22, figured anything was possible. His ERA was 1.80 and he held opponents to a .171 batting average.
That, at least, earned him a spot with Class AAA Tacoma, well above where he was last year. He played with three teams a year ago: the short-season A-level AquaSox, the high-level Class A High Desert Mavericks, and the Class AA Jackson Generals.
Two days after being called up, he was on the mound against the Oakland A’s. He allowed a double to his first hitter, which brought a mound visit from pitching coach Rick Waits. The next batter, Leone then put his lively fastball and dashing slider combination to work on the next batter, Coco Crisp, and earned him his first career major league strikeout.
Since then, Leone has allowed two earned runs, including the first home run of his major league career on Tuesday. Houston’s right-handed Matt Dominguez homer to right-center field off Leone caught McClendon’s attention.
“Shocked the hell out of me,” McClendon said with a laugh. “I guess he’s human after all.”
Important to Leone was the ability to recover from the home run and the single that followed it with only one out. A fly ball to center and ground out to second ended the inning.
“I feel like I’ve learned even in the short amount of time I’ve been up here,” Leone said. “Just learned kind of how to get in a routine and be effective. I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable. I never want to feel comfortable up here.
“(Though) I feel like I do belong.”
So far, it looks that way.