The Leesburg Lightning had to wait an extra 24 hours to start their 2021 season after Saturday’s home opener was postponed due to inclement weather, but the patience paid off.
The Lightning, who had won 15 of their last 17 contests against the Winter Garden Squeeze, rode some strong pitching performances to a 4-0 win to open up the season.
The first pitch thrown in the game wound up being indicative of how things would go, with Chase Malloy (Jacksonville University) hitting a single on the first pitch he saw in his league debut. The half inning would end without any damage after Cam Hill (Georgia State & College) fell going from third to home on an error by the Squeeze’s first basemen, Bryce Jackson (Frostburg State).
Dylan Kelley (UNF), who’s now in this third season with the Lightning, got the nod for today’s game. Right from the start, he did not disappoint, striking out 3 of the 4 batters he faced in the opening frame.
Kelley would get a cushion in the second, as Winter Garden’s starter Judson Hershiser (Troy University) began to struggle with his command. Luke Harper (University of North Alabama) and Drew Stubbs (Eastern Florida State) opened up the 2nd inning with back to back singles before Bryce Bitting (South Florida State) reached on a fielder’s choice. After a wild pitch got both Stubbs and Bitting into scoring position, Robbie Scott (University of North Florida) brought them both home with a single. Two wild pitches later, Scott crossed home plate himself to make it 3-0. Hershiser, who was charged with the loss, only lasted those two innings.
Myles Caba (South Florida State), who eventually picked up the win, thought the first few innings set the tone for the rest of the game:
“With the clean innings that Dylan had, we fed off of that with the three runs we had in the second.” said Caba. “The momentum swung to our side, and we were able to relax and just have fun. The results showed tonight.”
Kelley would pitch one more inning before exiting, finishing his three frames with two hits allowed and 5 punchouts.
From the third inning on, it was all pitching for both sides.
Caba worked well in the fourth, locating the strike zone often and fanning two. He ran into some trouble in the fifth, walking De la Cruz (University of New Orleans), who then stole second and reached third on a wild pitch. As would be the case throughout the night, the Lightning hurler worked through it, striking out the next two he faced and getting a popup to center to end the frame.
The third inning to the eighth was unceremonious for both Lightning and Squeeze hitters, with Leesburg mustering just two hits during that stretch. Three Winter Garden pitchers combined for nine strikeouts in that time. The Squeeze also committed three errors in that time frame and four total, although none of them led to Leesburg runs.
The Lightning would use four more pitchers after Kelley and Caba, with all of them going just one inning a piece. Blayne Huter (South Florida State) pitched a 1-2-3 sixth before Matt Coles (Carson-Newman) caught Noah Hughes (BYU) looking on a pitch on the outside corner, stranding Edgard Alvarez (Seminole State) at third and De la Cruz at second to end the inning. The Squeeze stranded five runners in scoring position on the game.
Already leading 3-0, the Lightning entered the ninth looking for some insurance runs. They didn’t have to wait long for that, with Clay Stearns (Troy University) collecting his second hit of the evening and the team’s first extra base hit to lead things off. Luke Harper (University of North Alabama) brought Stearns home on the very next pitch, extending Leesburg’s lead to four. Five of the nine hits that the Lightning ended up with came off of the bats of their returning players, something that Coach Rich Billings expects out of that group:
“It’s nice being able to put guys out there and just being able to let them play. You don’t have to do too much once you put them in the game.”
Zach Henderson (Valdosta State), who pitched with the Storm in 2020, shut the door in the ninth with a pair of strikeouts. In total, six Lightning pitchers combined for 12 strikeouts. Coach Billings was pleased with how everyone performed:
“Guys played hard-nosed baseball. I like to see that.”
The Lightning are back in action on Monday at 7 p.m against the Sanford River Rats, who took two of three from the Winter Park Diamond Dawgs to open the season. To Robbie Scott, the River Rats, who defeated the Lightning in last year’s championship round, are no regular opponent:
“We’re all looking forward to tomorrow. They have a big bullseye on their back, and we want to beat them.”
The Lightning will be at Historic Sanford Memorial Stadium on Monday night and then at home on Tuesday against the Rats for their home opener.
Matias Weilmann (Ithaca College)