Tournaments | Story | 11/23/2020

Dazzling in '20, Lesko looks for more

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Dylan Lesko (Perfect Game)

When Buford High School saw its 2020 spring season canceled abruptly by the COVID-19 pandemic in March just 11 games into the campaign, everyone associated with the multi-time Georgia state championship program was obviously extremely disappointed, especially the members of a talented senior class.

The Wolves had jumped to a 9-2 start, a mark that included a 3-1 showing and a runner-up finish in the Blue Division at the Perfect Game High School Showdown held in Hoover, Ala., in early March; hopes were high.

They opened pool-play at the Showdown with a 4-0 win over the Central (Ala.) Red Devils behind a combined three-hitter from senior right-hander Jake Haynes (Kennesaw State commit) and junior righty Connor Sampers (Wofford) which had the Wolves looking forward to day two and a date with the North Broward Prep (Fla.) Eagles.

Veteran Buford head coach Stuart Chester didn’t hesitate when choosing his starting pitcher for the contest with North Broward, which the Wolves needed to win to advance to the four-team playoffs. He handed the ball to sensational sophomore right-hander Dylan Lesko, the nation’s top-ranked pitcher from the class of 2022.

Good decision. The 6-foot-3, 185 pound Lesko used his mid-90s fastball and wicked 78 mph changeup to deliver a 10-strikeout, one-walk no-hitter that sent Buford into the semifinals. It also launched Lesko into a dominant summer on PG’s national championship tournament circuit while pitching for Guerry Baldwin’s East Cobb Astros Texas Orange squad.

“It was definitely a different year,” Lesko told PG during a telephone conversation late last week when asked his thoughts on the 2020 campaign. “Having our high school season taken away definitely sucked because we had a good team last year. During quarantine and everything, I just kept working out and trying to stay in shape hoping that (the) high school (season) would come back and knowing that the summer (season) was hopefully going to happen.”

The prep season didn’t come back but the summer season happened, all right, and Dylan Lesko was nothing short of a sensation. Now ranked the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2022 class behind only Florida outfielder Elijah Green, Lesko was named the Most Valuable Pitcher at four tournaments, including the PGHS Showdown with Buford and the PG Super25 16u National Championship and the PG 16u National Elite Championship with the Astros 16u Texas Orange.

Lesko, who over the weekend announced that he was committing to national powerhouse Vanderbilt of the SEC, went 7-0 and didn’t allow an earned run in 66 innings of work at PG events in 2020, surrendering only 19 hits and 19 walks while striking out 102.

He played a prominent role on five PG tournament championship teams with the East Cobb Astros over the summer, a count that includes titles at the 16u Super25 National Championship, the 16u World Series and the 16u National Elite Championship.

“When summer came, I know I wanted to be out there and all the guys on (the Astros 16u) wanted to be out there,” Lesko said. “We were just going out and having fun and really just making memories because we knew that it could be taken away fast. So we were out there every day, having fun and playing hard.”

2006 PG All-American lefthander Josh Smoker from Sugar Valley, Ga., pitched for Baldwin and the East Cobb Astros in the mid-2000s and went on to become a first-round compensation pick of the Nationals in the 2007 MLB Amateur Draft. He, too, enjoyed dominant seasons during his PG career and Baldwin said Lesko shows the same level of intensity when he pitches that Smoker showed.

“Love of the game; he just loves the game,” Baldwin said when asked about Lesko’s primary attribute. “He’s a tremendous competitor; he just refuses to lose. ... And he's such a great teammate. That really needs to be said if someone hasn't said it before."

Baldwin recalled a game at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship in 2019 when Dylan was uncharacteristically struggling so he walked out to take the ball from his young righthander. Problem was Lesko wasn’t ready to come out so Baldwin left him in and Dylan settled down and picked up the win.

Cory Lesko, Dylan’s dad, pitched collegiately at D-II Barry University in Miami and he marvels at what his son has been able to accomplish so early in his young but burgeoning baseball career.

Watching Dylan develop into an elite national prospect has been especially exciting for Cory because he knows just how much his son loves the game. Even as a kid there was no place Dylan would rather be than at the ballpark.

Dylan is a hard worker both on the field and in the classroom (4.0 GPA) and watching that competitive edge come to the fore when he's out competing with and against many of the best players in the country has been nothing short of a joy.

“To succeed at times and also fail at times, and then come back and battle and get better each day, the excitement has just been seeing the opportunities in the future for him,” Cory told PG during a separate telephone conversation late last week. “His dream is always to go to the next level be it college or even get drafted, but just seeing the excitement of him succeeding in those dreams he has is the best thing for a parent.”

The one thing that can be said about Dylan Lesko with utmost certainty is that he is a grinder, although he doesn’t consider what he does to be a grind. He's been rostered at 52 PG events since March 2015, has been named all-tournament at 34 of them and MV Pitcher seven times since 2017. According to DiamondKast stats, he is a combined 26-3 with a 1.30 ERA and 300 strikeouts in 187 innings over the last four seasons.

It should be noted here that Lesko isn’t a pitcher-only, either. He’s played catcher and shortstop and this summer he made 208 plate appearances and went 43-for-164 (.262) with 11 doubles, 42 RBI and 40 runs scored; he had a .403 OBP.

“I still consider myself a two-way and I’m still going to try to do it as long as I can,” he said. “Hopefully in college if I can succeed at it I’m going to try to do it. I do enjoy hitting. It’s fun unless I’m doing bad but I still enjoy it.”

Lesko was a Top Prospect List performer at the PG National Academic, PG 14u National and the PG National Underclass-Main Event showcases, all in 2018. He was also invited to the PG 14u Select Baseball Festival in Fort Myers, Fla., over the 2018 Labor Day Weekend, an all-star event where he was joined by other top 2022s like the aforementioned Green (No. 1, Miami), Andruw Jones (No. 3, Vanderbilt), Termarr Johnson (No. 4, uncommitted), Cole Young (No. 8, Duke) and Tristan Smith (No. 9, uncommitted).

That experience was especially gratifying for Dylan because it gave him the opportunity to really get to know those other top players and dozens of others on a more personal level.

“You get to play these kids over the course of the summer but you never really get to talk to them or get to meet them,” he said. “When we were down there playing together and we had time in the hotel to actually get to know each other, it was great.

“It’s kids from all over and they don’t have the same backgrounds … and having the time to get to know them and their baseball (style), it’s really cool to see the differences but also the similarities.”

There really isn’t anything more enjoyable for the parent of a teenage athlete to witness than watching the ease with which their son (or daughter) interacts with his peers both on and off the field.

The level at which Dylan and the other elite prospects perform can create an intense environment but the way they seem to enjoy each other’s company so much is a great reminder that deep-down they’re still teenagers simply having the time of their life playing ball.

Seeing that scenario play out, Cory said, is “one of the best things that Perfect Game offers.” The relationships Dylan has built and the friendships he’s made with players from different states and even different age-groups can and will last a lifetime.

“A lot of the excitement when a big tournament comes up is just seeing all the people that he’s met coming together and sit and chat,” Cory said. “They learn from each other and what their experiences are and who they’re talking to and what they’re doing to get better. That to me, is the best. The friendships he’s gaining from this are going to be life-long.”

Lesko called getting involved with Guerry Baldwin and the East Cobb Astros the most beneficial move he’s made during his still burgeoning baseball career. He joined the program as an eight-year-old without really knowing a lot about it, but Cory did and he reached out to see if his son could be involved; Dylan has never left.

“I’ve love playing there,” he said. “I’ve had so many great friendships come from playing with East Cobb and the coaches have helped me succeed and help me learn what I need to learn. It’s the best organization in the country in my opinion.”

It was Guerry Baldwin, Dylan said, who helped him develop his changeup, a pitch PG VP of Player Personnel David Rawnsley called “one of the best changeups ever for this age.” He also has plus-plus command of both his heater and his change, which only serves to make the pitches all the more unhittable.

Baldwin noted that Lesko has such an electric arm and such good command of his fastball that it only made sense he developed a secondary pitch. He had the right arm angle and release to throw the pitch effectively and he now throws it as well as any pitcher his age that the veteran baseball man has seen.

Dylan and Cory moved to Buford when Dylan was an eighth-grader and Lesko has thrived in Chester’s program as much as he has thrived in Baldwin’s East Cobb Astros program. He describes the atmosphere surrounding Buford Wolves baseball as that of a family, buoyed by a tight-knit community in which everyone has each other’s back and the support is unflinching.

“Being able to play for Buford has really been one of my favorite things,” Dylan said. “You’re out there representing your city and it’s just great being able to have a community back you up whether you’re at home or away; anywhere you go they’re always behind you.”

Despite his baseball background, Cory said he’s been pretty much hands-off as far as coaching Dylan goes. He’s chosen to play the role of supportive parent instead, trying to direct Dylan to the right trainers and coaches who are more qualified help him reach his maximum potential.

So, Cory Lesko fills the role of spectator these days, content to sit back and watch and let the coaches pay attention to the details and make the proper decisions regarding Dylan’s progression.

“With Guerry taking care of him … he’s going to keep his rotation what it is and that way these kids aren’t used more than they should be and (he’ll) take good care of their bodies and their arms,” Cory said. “The high school coach (Chester) has done the same, making sure they take care of these kids. … It’s been great to have that.”

Based on the progression that Dylan Lesko has made and his development to this point, it’s obvious he’s been well taken care of. He feels like he’s seeing improvement in his game with each passing year and he gave up football – a sport he also loves – this year so he could focus all his energies on baseball.

Lesko’s attacking the offseason, lifting weights and working to improve his agility. He’s seeing a soft tissue specialist to keep himself stretched-out and more flexible and he’s put in place a soft-toss program. “I’m just trying to hit this offseason hard and really see a big gain this upcoming spring and summer,” he said.

Lesko’s commitment to Vanderbilt and head coach Tim Corbin over the weekend will allow him to play his final two seasons of high school ball and his final season of summer ball in 2021 unimpeded by the demands and pressures of the college recruiting process.

The 2021 PG High School Showdown is scheduled for March 4-6 at the Hoover (Ala.) Met Sports Complex and the Buford Wolves, which shared a division championship at the Showdown in 2019, will once again be in attendance.

It is everyone’s hope that 2021 will represent a return to some sort of normalcy in that the teams at this year’s Showdown will leave Hoover, go home and complete their spring schedules in their entirety.

For Dylan Lesko, that would mean competing for a Georgia high school state championship in the spring and then competing for PG national championships with the East Cobb Astros Texas Orange throughout the summer.

He won’t guarantee another 10-strikeout no-hitter at this year’s Showdown but there isn’t any reason to think it won’t happen. The kid has been, after all, almost unhittable throughout his PG career and he’ll always be ready to compete at the highest levels.

“We have a talented high school team and our coach (Chester) doesn’t take that lightly and tries to schedule the hardest games across the state,” Dylan said. “(That) really gets us ready for when we get to the (Georgia state) playoffs and then the playoffs get you ready for the summer.”

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