Summer baseball: South grad Leffew turning heads in the Cape

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 3, 2024

By Mike London

HARWICH, Mass. — The harbor town of Harwich, Mass., experiences a major population jump every summer, from 13,000 to 37,000, as tourists and vacationers flock to Cape Cod.

One of the notable guests this summer is a 19-year-old left-handed pitcher from Wake Forest University who is consistently throwing 96 mph in the elite Cape Cod Baseball League. His name is Haiden Leffew, and local baseball fans will remember him as one of the key men on South Rowan High’s drive to the 2022 3A state championship. That was his junior season. He had an ERA of 0.82, struck out 128 and swung a bat with authority.

“Man, do I miss hitting,” Leffew said with a sigh. “They let me take BP at Wake Forest. That made me miss it even more.”

So how’s the July weather in New England?

“A little bit of a breeze, not a cloud in the sky, 75 degrees, immaculate weather,” said Leffew, who may have a future as a meteorologist.

Leffew’s Harwich teammates include East Rowan graduate Chance Mako.

Leffew and Wake Forest teammate Blake Morningstar live with a sports-minded host family headed by John Scheffler, a former baseball player and a pro golfer. His house is a sports museum.

“You wouldn’t believe the pictures he has,” Leffew said. “He played golf with Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. He gave Tiger Woods a lesson when Tiger was 13.”

A young lefty with a sturdy, 6-foot-2, 220-pound frame throwing 96 creates some buzz among MLB scouts. As a rule, southpaws rely on their natural movement, while the righties bring more heat. A lefty with sizzle brings the guys with the notebooks, radar guns and laptops to Harwich games whenever Leffew is scheduled to pitch.

Leffew’s last outing, his third appearance of the summer, did not disappoint. He pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings for this first win the CCBL. He allowed two hits and struck out eight.

“It felt good to pitch deeper in a game,” Leffew said. “Just kept pounding the zone. I got some early contact for quick outs. I attacked hitters better than I did in my first two outings. Our coaches stress throwing a first-pitch strike and getting ahead. Hitters here are still adjusting to swinging wood bats and they don’t have much of a chance if you can work ahead. I can work both sides of the plate. I can get them out inside with hard stuff or away with the soft stuff. I’ve just got to stay out of the middle of the zone.”

In high school, Leffew dominated with his fastball. Most hitters couldn’t touch it. He rarely needed to use anything else except against the 3 and 4 hitters.

At Wake Forest, playing in one of two best college leagues in the country, Leffew had to make adjustments to facing full lineups that were all 3 and 4 hitters in high school. There are guys in the ACC who can hit anyone’s fastball.

But Leffew has grown as a pitcher since fans saw him hurl for South Rowan.

“My velocity on the fastball is up a few ticks and I can stay at 95 and 96 consistently now,” Leffew said. “My changeup has gotten much better. I can throw it for a strike now at any time. My cutter is coming along. My command has improved. My weight hasn’t changed a lot, but I’ve added some muscle. As far as my demeanor on the mound, I guess I can still get a little scary out there. I get excited.”

Leffew can get emotional on the bump. He gets fired up.

He pitched in 18 games for the Demon Deacons as a freshman. He made three starts and had 38 strikeouts in 35 1/3 innings.

He went 3-0 with those three wins coming against North Carolina A&T, Liberty and Coastal Carolina. In his college debut, he struck out eight against UNC Greensboro. He pitched great in a relief outing against Clemson. For the season, opposing hitters batted .221 against him.

“Early in the season, I was starting mid-week games against the mid-majors, did pretty well, and then I switched to a relief role,” Leffew said. “Relieving is totally different because you don’t know when you’re going in. You might warm up, get hot and be ready to go, but then you sit back down and cool off. Then you do it all over again. So it’s tougher than starting and I’d never done it before, but I learned how to handle it.”

Leffew soaked up knowledge by watching Chase Burns, a Wake Forest teammate who will be first-round draft pick and a millionaire in about 10 days.

“Chase went after the hitters with no fear,” Leffew said. “He wanted to throw every pitch 100. He had this fierce mentality.”

Perhaps the most memorable game of Leffew’s freshman season came in March at Charlottesville, Va. Michael Massey, one of Wake Forest’s standout pitchers, suffered a back ailment and wasn’t able to throw, so Leffew was handed the ball on short notice for a Sunday start against the Virginia Cavaliers. He only got eight outs, but it was another step in the learning process.

While transfer portals are bustling these days, Leffew is already looking forward to being back on the mound for Wake Forest. He could have a major role as a sophomore. The Cape Cod experience, taking on college all-star lineups every time he takes the mound, can only help him.

Leffew, who was rated the second-best lefty coming out of North Carolina high schools in 2023, will be eligible for the MLB draft in 2026. If he can stay healthy and keep refining his skills, he’ll have a chance to be picked early.

Ironically, one of the best players Leffew has encountered this summer is the one he knows best: Kane Kepley, the Liberty outfielder who was Leffew’s high school teammate, plays in the Cape for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks.

Kepley doubled when he faced Leffew.

“We’ve played Kane’s team twice,” Leffew said. “The first time he was batting second and playing right field. The second time he was leading off and playing center field. You watch the outfielders from the big schools here and they’re almost nonchalant shagging flies before a game. Not Kane. He’s diving after every ball. He’s sprinting after every ball. He’s all-out all the time. He was the same way in high school in practice, and that desire is going to separate him from a lot of other guys.”