LEESBURG, Fla- Despite their struggles against the Winter Park Diamond Dawgs in the regular season, the Leesburg Lightning were a perfect 3-0 in games played at Pat Thomas Stadium against the Dawgs. Despite game one being played at “the Pat”, the Lightning faltered to open up championship weekend, dropping the opener to the Dawgs 8-4. With the loss, the Lightning are just a game away from elimination.
The first two innings were pretty uneventful for both sides, with Dominick Madonna (UNF) allowing three base runners through the first two frames while stranding them both. On the other side of the coin, Chase Malloy (Jacksonville) applied some pressure early with a single up the middle and a pair of stolen bases, but the Lightning couldn’t produce anything of it. As they would learn later, that became a trend for the night.
Dariel Fregio (St. Leo), who the Lightning had seen twice in the regular season and had struggled with (to an extent), was as locked in as any pitcher all season. Following the single by Malloy, Fregio retired 11 in a row, with the streak broken via an infield single by Clay Stearns (Troy) in the fourth. The Lightning only managed to get one other baserunner off of Fregio after that, which came in the form of a JD Stubbs (Georgia Gwinnett) walk in the fifth. At the end of the night, Fregio went seven scoreless innings of two-hit baseball, allowing just one walk while striking out five. He did all of that while keeping a criminally low pitch count, throwing 90 total pitches.
“He threw strikes and he made us swing” said manager Rich Billings. “Hats off to him. He pitched with everything he had left in the tank and he did a fantastic job.”
The Dawgs offense provided support behind him, with a pair of solo shots for Mike Ballard (Eckerd) in the third and Grant Berman (NYU) in the fourth, respectively, giving the Dawgs the early lead. They’d scratch another across in the fifth on a Sterlin Thompson single to make it 3-0. That came as a part of a three-hit inning for the Dawgs, all of which came with two outs. The first hit knocked Madonna out of the game, with Matthew Coles (Carson Newman) taking his place.
Madonna went four and two thirds of an inning, while allowing three earned runs to go with four hits and three walks. He also struck out six batters while earning the loss.
Coles would sit the Dawgs down in order for the first time all evening in the sixth before running into trouble in the seventh. Back to back singles and then back to back walk, the latter of which brought in a run, made it 4-0 Winter Park. After a fielder’s choice, a walk and a single up the middle, Leesburg all of a sudden found themselves trailing 7-0. The Lightning pitching staff, despite it’s marvelous performances all season long, has been burnt a few times by Winter Park’s crooked innings. Tonight’s four-run seventh marked the fourth time that the Dawgs put up four runs in an inning against Leesburg.
Despite the crooked inning and lack of offensive production, Coach Billings’ frustration was with the team’s energy level.
“I’m frustrated with the energy we played with. We had a packed house and you have to get excited about that… Things went their way because they earned those breaks because they showed up and played hard. They outplayed us tonight. We played with no emotion and no energy. You don’t earn breaks by not showing up with no energy.”
The Lightning found success once the Dawgs went into their bullpen, collecting five hits and seven total baserunners over the last two innings of the game. Despite opening the scoring in the eighth and tacking on three more in the nine, two of which came from a single up the middle from Bryce Bitting (South Florida State), it was too little too late. The Dawgs claimed an opening game victory 8-4 and snatched home field advantage from Leesburg, pushing the Bolts just one game away from elimination.
“We didn’t get in their bullpen. They took their starter out, and then we got to their bullpen.” said Coach Billings. “We’re not leaving here feeling good about ourselves. The only positive is that tomorrow’s a new day. A win tomorrow means today doesn't matter.”
The Lightning will turn to a combination of Evan Waterbor (FAU) and Dylan Kelley (UNF) for tomorrow’s do-or-die game two. The Dawgs will trot out Eric Garcia (Eastern Florida State), who earned the win in his masterful game one performance against the Sanford River Rats last round.
Matias Weilmann (Ithaca College)