By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
BOSTON — Dominic Leone’s return to Boston couldn’t have gone much better.
He scored his Dunkin Donuts fix soon after the Seattle Mariners hit town, got into the series opener Friday at Fenway Park and nabbed a victory after a stunning comeback produced five runs in the ninth inning.
“I grew up here,” he said. “This is home. About and hour-and-a-half (away in Norwich, Conn.) with traffic. So I was close. I came to a bunch of games here as a kid. So running out of that pen was … there were some nerves.”
Leone, 22, is a rookie right-hander who rose quickly through the Mariners’ system following his selection out of Clemson in the 16th round of the 2012 draft.
He earned an invitation last spring to big-league camp after compiling a 1.95 ERA in 67 minor-league games over two seasons spent mostly in the low minors.
“I was in Seattle (last) winter,” manager Lloyd McClendon recalled, “and I happened to be flicking through the channels. A Fall League game was on, and Leone was pitching. I said, ‘Who in the heck is this?’
“Nobody ever mentioned this guy to me, and I’m seeing 97 (mph). Wait a minute! So he caught my eye then, and I was anxious to see him in spring training, and he didn’t disappoint.”
Leone allowed two runs and six hits in 10 spring innings over nine appearances. He also struck out 10.
“He was very impressive in the spring,” McClendon said, “really to the point where he probably should have made our team out of spring training. We had roster issues with (Hector) Noesi.”
Less than a week into the season, the Mariners designated Noesi for assignment before eventually trading him to Texas. That created an opening for Leone, who is 6-2 with a 2.60 ERA in 45 outings.
McClendon nursed Leone’s acclimation to the big leagues by restricting him, primarily, to low-leverage situations. The Mariners trailed 3-0 on Friday when Leone took the mound in the eighth inning.
Even so, this was special … and then it turned into something extra special.
“I knew there was a bunch of family here,” Leone said. “People were stopping by throughout the game. I had to settle myself down and make sure I was focusing on the game rather than the situation as a whole.”
Leone worked around a one-out walk in pitching a scoreless inning, then watched as his teammates erupted for five two-out runs in the ninth against Boston closer Koji Uehara.
That’s the same Uehara who had a 1.53 ERA when the night began and who Leone watched last October, at times from the stands, close out seven postseason victories when the Red Sox won the World Series.
“That’s who we are,” Leone said,. “We fight. We’re making this (postseason) push for a reason. No matter what, we’re going to keep grinding. I get the W in the stat sheet because these guys battled.”
Even so, it turned Leone’s first Fenway appearance into a wonderfully indelible memory.
“Oh, yeah,” he agreed. “Awesome. Just awesome.”