And then there were two.
Following a two-game sweep of the DeLand Suns, the Leesburg Lightning find themselves contending for a Whiting Cup for the second year in a row. The team that finds itself in the way has been a thorn in the Lightning’s side for not just this season, but a decade’s worth of playoff battles: the Winter Park Diamond Dawgs.
The Dawgs won their play-in game contest with the Winter Garden Squeeze before stunning the defending champion Sanford River Rats in three games to advance to the championship.
In this preview, we’ll analyze the season series and some keys for a Lightning championship.
Where and When?
Game 1 and Game 3 (if necessary) will be played at Pat Thomas Stadium, while Game 2 will be played at Bishop Moore High School. All games will start at 7 P.M barring weather delays.
Games at Pat Thomas are free as always. Pricing for Game 2 can be found online at http://www.floridaleague.com/view/fcsl.
As always, all games can be watched in real time and on replay on FloSports (subscription required).
Season Series Review
The Dawgs are the only team to have a record above .500 against the Lightning this season, winning four of the team’s seven contests. The home team has dominated in the series, winning on their respective home turf (or dirt) each time. The Lightning were the home team for a loss at Bishop Moore High School (the Dawgs’ home field), but if you’re dividing it geographically, the Lightning are 3-0 at home against the Dawgs in the regular season and 0-4 in games played away from home.
The “crooked” innings have hurt the Lightning in games against the Diamond Dawgs this season (a crooked inning is one in which a team scores multiple runs). The Lightning have been burned multiple times by these innings, including allowing a 10-run inning, a four-run inning three separate times, and a six-run first inning back in June. To put in context how rare that is, those 38 runs scored against Leesburg in a seven inning span accounted for 35% of the total runs they allowed during the regular season. For a variety of reasons, a usually lockdown pitching staff has faltered at times against Winter Park.
Leesburg certainly turned things around in the last two meetings, winning by margins of three and five runs. After being outscored 18-5 over two games in the preceding doubleheader, Leesburg outscored Winter Park 14-6 over the last two games.
Keys to a Lightning Victory:
The Lightning, who hold home field advantage because they are the higher seed, are the favorites to win the team’s third championship. The Dawgs, however, have the momentum that any Cinderella teams, having made FCSL history as the only five seed to ever make the championship game/series. So how do the Lightning pull this off?
- Get Off to a Good Start
Sometimes it’s just that simple. Most of the Lightning’s struggles against the Dawgs have been in the first three frames. Over the first, second and third innings, the Dawgs are out scoring the Lightning 21-11, by far the widest margin against Leesburg against any opponent over any three-inning period. The Dawgs offense, which from a slashing line might not appear especially daunting, has found success against Lightning pitching early in games. The Dawgs have hit 10 doubles and three homers against the Lightning, with the long ball usually coming at back-breaking times, either in the early frame or right as Leesburg began mounting a comeback. Limiting big damage will be crucial against a team in the Dawgs that was tied for the league lead in home runs.
Winter Park has also been able to get off to so many good starts because of their pitching. Their starting rotation of Austin Emener (UNA), Ethan Brown (Samford), Matthew Malatesta (South Carolina Beaufort) and Dariel Fregio (St. Leo) occupied the top four spots in strikeouts in the regular season, respectively.
- Consistent Offense
This isn’t exactly rocket science, but the Lightning have seen over the past week that an offense that stays consistent throughout the game equates to a less nerve-racking game than an offense that strikes only a few times in the game. The offense has gotten contributions up and down the lineup in the playoffs and over the past week. That starts with Robbie Scott (UNF), who is slashing an absurd .455/.510/.773/1.283) in the month of July. Through two playoff games, the former Dawg is 5-5 with seven RBI. Clay Stearns (Troy) is also currently on a tear, slashing .481/.588/.630/1.218 over his past nine games. Guys like Brett Kelly (UNCG), Cam Hill (Georgia College & State), Chase Malloy (Jacksonville), Naphis Llanos (Francis Marion), and Jesse Hall (Troy), who have been staples on the bookends of the lineup, will need to continue to produce to put their big bats of Stearns, Scott, JD Stubbs (Georgia Gwinnett) and Travis Stapleton (UNF) in positions to drive home runs.
- Ignore Past Playoff Struggles
The Lightning have struggled in the playoffs recently. They are 2-5 all-time against Winter Park, losing to them in the 2013 and 2010 championship game (Note: the league shifted to a three-game series in 2018). They are 2-5 all time in championship games/series, having gone 11 straight seasons without a championship.
Want to know the beauty of summer baseball? There’s so much roster turnover from year to year that no other year but 2021 matters.
Coach Rich Billings, who is in his seventh season as the manager and ninth overall with the team, knows that consistency will be the key to a victory, saying, “It’s the next round that we struggle with. The attitudes have to stay consistent, there’s no reason to do anything different since we’ve had success with the approach we’ve used to this point. Consistency will be the message into Friday.”
The Lightning will trot out Dominick Madonna (UNF) to start Friday’s game. Madonna was the ace on the team for the majority of the season, finishing the regular season with a 3.15 ERA. Winter Park will send out Dariel Fregio (St. Leo), who posted a solid 3.33 ERA and a stunning 37/7 strikeout to walk ratio.
Matias Weilmann (Ithaca College)