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Leroy the Tigers' closer

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

The Fort Hays State University baseball team has consistently enjoyed strong closers, especially in the last four years with Mat Atkinson and Brett Macari. Atkinson saved 17 career games in 2009-10, third all-time in Tiger history.

Macari collected 20 saves, second-best in school annals.

Last year, Macari went 5-1 with a 1.20 earned-run average with eight saves, and earned first team all-MIAA honors.

Kyle Leroy was the Tigers' trusted setup man, and finished 3-0 with a 5.06 ERA in a team-high 20 games, one off the top-10 list in school history.

This spring, third-year Tiger coach Steve Johnson wanted to keep Leroy in his middle relief role. Johnson put Luke McKay, a senior right-hander who had caught the attention of some scouts, to close. But McKay, who hadn't pitched in some time and broke his hand last fall, struggled in his first appearance of the year.

Since then, Leroy has taken over as the closer -- and continued the Tigers' run of strong late-inning performances. Leroy, a career reliever, throws from a submarine/sidearm slot. He doesn't overpower hitters, but constantly is around the strike zone.

"I enjoy it," Leroy said. "I like the pressure. It sounds dumb, but I enjoy pressure and having the game in my hands. I learned a lot from Brett last year, so it's an easy transition.

"I learned that you've got to get ahead on everybody," he added. "You get behind them and you let a guy get on base in a one-run game, especially with my kind of stuff, they steal pretty easy on me, so you've got to be consistent and get ahead and pound it."

Leroy was 1-0 with a 3.75 ERA with three saves in seven games before Saturday's 20-4 loss to Lindenwood (Mo.) University. He had thrown 12 innings with seven strikeouts against eight walks. FHSU is 11-9, 8-8 MIAA after dropping two of three at Lindenwood.

In Saturday's loss, Leroy had to come on in relief as the Tigers' staff struggled. He pitched 1.2 innings, and surrendered six hits with three earned runs, a walk and a strikeout. He pitched part of a 12-run inning for the Lions.

"That's a bonus if you have a strikeout guy there, but the most important thing is a strike thrower," Johnson said. "We try not to bring in our closer into situations where a strikeout is needed immediately. We want a guy coming in where 'OK, we want to control the situation, force them to hit you.' And if they are going to beat us, let them beat us and not beat ourselves."

Leroy, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound right-hander from Great Bend, has consistently pitched well in relief, but rarely closed. In 2010, he led Barton Community College with a 1.86 ERA. In 2011, he delivered a 2.08 ERA in 21.2 innings and recorded two saves. All 64 of his collegiate appearances have come in relief.

In a 13-12 season-opening Feb. 8 road loss to Metropolitan State University of Denver, Leroy set up McKay. However, McKay faced three batters in the ninth inning, didn't get any outs and eventually allowed three runs to score.

"Kyle is our closer right now," Johnson said. "After the first day, closer is a situation where we have to have someone we know who is going to be around the strike zone. Kyle has had some walks, but he has competed."

McKay has appeared in three games with a 30.86 ERA. Johnson said McKay is "too good not to get out there" and would like to possibly use McKay as a starter to face some hitters.

"He hasn't got a chance to see hitters in a situation where he can make a mistake, and we need to put him into some situations where he can make some mistakes and we can recover from it and allow him to develop," Johnson said.

Leroy has made some changes this season. In 2012, Leroy used more of a sinker, slider and curveball. This year, his curveball has improved and he has incorporated a changeup that has worked well against left-handers.

"Didn't have a feel for (the change) last year, so I worked on it all summer and all winter and I've got a feel for it now," he said. "I needed another pitch for lefties, because all I had pretty much was a fastball. My slider doesn't work for them. I needed another pitch, so a changeup is a great one."

Leroy also has a terrific pickoff move. In 2012, he picked off five runners; the rest of the Tigers combined for four. This year, he has the team's only two pickoffs. Against Metro State, Leroy was called for a rare balk and eventually allowed two runs (one earned) in .2 innings before McKay took over.

"It's happens," he said. "I've got called for it before, but it's one of those things, some guys who haven't umpired that much don't see it coming, and it throws them off, but you've got to deal with it."

Since Feb. 17, Leroy has allowed just one earned run. He started that stretch with two scoreless innings in a save against Washburn University. Sophomore Nathan Zimmerman and Leroy combined on the victory that ended a season-worst three-game losing streak. FHSU is 8-5 since.

"It was really good to get a win for us. Zim pitched the best game I have seen him pitch here," Leroy said. "It was great to see him get started, so if we can get the pen going, get a couple more guys going, my job is easy."