A smile crossed Brennan Leitao’s face as he scanned the Sacramento State baseball diamond from the dugout on Tuesday.
“This is almost surreal,” said Leitao, Sac State’s junior ace. “Today would be a travel day back home to Irvine. It’s awesome to be hanging around the park with my teammates and to still be playing.”
Leitao was in street clothes as the Hornets players and coaches started to arrive for their last practice in Sacramento before heading to San Luis Obispo and their first appearance in the NCAA Division I Regionals.
The fourth-seeded Hornets will play host Cal Poly tonight in the double-elimination tournament that also includes No. 2 Arizona State and No. 3 Pepperdine. It’s the first regional playoff for the Hornets since they moved to Division I in 1990.
Most amazed is Leitao, who earned a Sac State record 24th career victory in Sunday’s 10-3 victory over Utah Valley in the Western Athletic Conference tournament championship in Mesa, Ariz., that gave the Hornets the automatic NCAA postseason bid.
Leitao never envisioned that he would be one of the most successful (two All-WAC first-team selections) and prolific (297 innings with just 64 walks and a 24-12 record over three seasons) pitchers in Sac State history when he was a senior at Woodbridge High School in Irvine.
Leitao figured that his future beyond high school was as a shortstop. But he didn’t know if he had much of a college future, because he spent most of his summers preparing for football season, when he played quarterback, wide receiver and safety.
Leitao still was looking for a scholarship when he attended a late fall showcase in Monterey his senior year, only because it fit in with his school and football schedules. He pitched on a Sunday morning, pretty much on a lark, but said the afternoon session, when he was scheduled to show off his infield skills, got rained out.
That didn’t matter to Sac State coach Reggie Christiansen, who thought Leitao could be a college pitcher even though he had hardly pitched in high school at that point.
“We were trying to find guys who could throw strikes,” Christiansen said. “That was the hard part with some of the guys we had. Brennan had a lower arm slot, and his ball moved a lot in on right-handers. Once we had a chance to meet him and his family, we liked what we saw.”
That weekend, on the return trip from Monterey, he and his parents visited relatives in Lodi. Leitao decided to visit the Sac State campus, and he ran into Sac State athletic director Terry Wanless and former baseball coach John Smith. They told him about Christiansen and his goal of turning the Hornets into a top-tier Division I program.
“I really got a good vibe from the school, and I really liked Dr. Wanless and Coach Smith,” said Leitao, who is the scheduled starter for Saturday’s game in San Luis Obispo. “On our drive back home that night, we got an email with an offer. The coincidence was unbelievable. I committed shortly thereafter. It’s a pretty crazy story. That was the only showcase I ever attended. Usually the recruiting process takes a year to a year and half, but for me it was quick and effortless.”
Leitao was thankful he got to throw 43 innings in his senior season that spring for Woodbridge, because he was pitching behind a player who was drafted and signed by the New York Mets and two others now at Loyola Marymount and the University of San Diego.
After a brief spell in the bullpen as a Sac State freshman, Leitao settled into being a starter. He was 7-5 as a freshman, 8-3 last season and 9-4 this season while showing the pin-point control that Christiansen projected.
Leitao says playing two sports in high school has helped him succeed at Sac State.
“It’s too bad in this day and age so many kids are being pressured to focus on one sport in high school,” he said. “Football benefited me both mentally and physically. It gave my arm a rest, my mind a rest from baseball.”
The work ethic and mental toughness he learned from football has been a plus, too.
“Sometimes you have to push the starters because it’s hard work pitching one day a week,” Christiansen said. “The other six, you are preparing for the next start. If you are not a tough kid, not self-motivated, it’s easy to skip the running or the weight room.
“Brennan’s one of those kids who wants to win for his teammates, and he is going to do whatever it takes. He doesn’t shortchange himself.”
Leitao isn’t a strikeout pitcher – he is averaging 6.1 per game this season – so he keeps his teammates involved.
“Whether he has his best stuff or not, he’s always working harder than anyone out there,” senior center fielder David Del Grande said. “He works fast, throws strikes and is an easy guy to play defense behind.”
Leitao will be eligible for the Major League Baseball draft in June – “a few teams have shown interest” – but returning to Sac State next season wouldn’t be so bad, either.
He said he’s learned so much from Christiansen and associate head coach Steve Holm, a former Giants catcher.
“Both have been huge in my developing my game the last couple of seasons,” he said.
He also likes being part of a team that’s created special vibes on campus and in the community.
“We’re a bunch of scrappy kids who understand our roles, and we’re brothers going out there every day to work for one common goal,” Leitao said. “We’ve accomplished that in making a regional, winning the WAC outright and the tournament. But we’re not done. We’re not just happy to be in the regionals. We want more for this program now and in the future.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.