Justin Leone is ready for his money shot

PORTLAND-- One of the most talked about prospects in the minor leagues right now is Portland Beavers third baseman Justin Leone. His focus has kept his mind on returning to the show.

As of stats through Wednesday, the eighth-year veteran is currently at the top of the Pacific Coast League in home runs (8), total bases (57), slugging percentage (.803) and batting average (.423). He is second for RBI's (24) and on-base percentage (.500) and is third in the league in hits (30).

He has hits in 17 of 19 games, at least one RBI in 15 of 19 games and has scored in 12 of 19 games. He was named PCL batter of the week on April 18. As if that weren't enough, he hits better in clutch situations, where his average swells to .500 with runners on base and to .556 with runners in scoring position with two outs.

Not bad by anyone's standards.

In fact it is the best start of his career and marks a full return to form since ending 2004 on the disabled list after an up-and-in pitch caught his hand and ended a season in which he'd been called up to the Seattle Mariners. With the Mariners he appeared in 31 games, finishing the season with six home runs and batting .213.

In 2005 he spent the year with Triple-A Tacoma, appearing in 87 games and hitting .243 with seven homers.

The Padres signed Leone as a minor league free agent in November of 2005, a fresh start.

In spring training with the Padres, despite tallying a three-run homer and a grand slam over a four game stretch, he didn't get the call he was hoping for. Yet, by posting such consistent numbers, it seems only a matter of time before he gets another shot in "The Bigs", something he feels completely ready for.

"This is by far my best start," he said before batting practice this week. "I didn't have a good last year, mostly due to my injuries. I wasn't as well prepared. This year I had a good off-season, was able to get in the gym and really concentrate on what I needed to get strong and come into the season healthy."

Beavers manager Craig Colbert agrees. "Justin's doing what he does, so we're not too surprised, but it is an incredible start."

So just what will it take for this slugger to get back to the show?

"I can't take any at-bats off. I need to stay focused," he explains. "I have to be in a position where I'm just more valuable to them, so I need to show that I can play other positions," he adds. "Gimmie a few games at any position and I'll get used to it. I enjoyed playing right field last year. There are more opportunities to throw the ball when guys are tagging off of second or third and show different parts of your defense; running down balls, diving, throwing guys out at home.

In his eighth year, Leone is a veteran in the minors and despite his current success it hasn't always been easy. He still considers getting drafted his greatest accomplishment, followed closely by his first appearance in the majors.

"I had a tough time getting drafted; going from not even knowing what it's about and not even thinking it's gonna happen to really pushing it, working hard and really going for it."

But as is so often the case in professional sports, chance can play the spoiler to the best-laid plans. After performing well for Seattle in 2004 when he led the Mariners with five home runs during his first month and homered three times in four games from July 26-29, he was hit by a pitch on August 17 in Kansas City. Fracturing the metacarpals in his left hand, Leone was forced to end the season on the disabled list.

He spent the next year back in Triple-A, something he puts in perspective as a temporary setback.

"I could've really got down about it and hit the tank but I didn't," he recalls. "Basically, it was my fault I didn't get back up there. I mean, I know they signed Beltre, but there are other opportunities; as a utility guy or maybe get traded, but I didn't perform so well. I look at it as experience. I try to stay as positive as possible, to get healthy and stay in a good frame of mind."

Naturally it takes a mental adjustment when switching teams and, more importantly, professional levels. "It's always a little bit shocking, the first time," he states, referring to playing in the majors. "I didn't know what to expect, but the more you get up there, the more comfortable it is. The second time's better because the guys know you. At first they don't even talk to you."

Leone is confident that he would fit in well with the Padres were the call to come this year. "I got along well with the guys during spring training, the whole staff treated me well, so it wouldn't be too hard this time."

With the Leone's current numbers, it's hard to imagine he'll stay in Portland long. By all appearances, he's at the top of his game.

"I'm not at the top level so I can't say if I'm at the top of my game," he demurs. "I'm playing well here; it's not about being at the top of your game, it's about being consistent. We're all potential .350 hitters. It just takes a lot of work."

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