SANFORD, FLA.- The Lightning suffered their first loss of the 2021 season on Monday night, dropping an 8-6 contest to the Sanford River Rats in a rematch of last year’s championship round.
The Lightning found themselves trailing early after a single by Jaiden Warde (Flager) brought home Jeff Liquori (Florida Southern) in the 2nd. From there, Dominick Madonna (UNF), who made his Lightning debut after pitching for the Storm in 2020, settled down for a quality outing. Madonna went four scoreless innings, fanning five and allowing just three hits. The lone run he allowed was unearned due to an error committed by JD Stubbs (Georgia-Gwinnett) at first base.
Through three innings, Sanford’s starter Ronaldo Heredia-Bustos (Northwestern Ohio) was lights out, striking out four of the first five batters he faced and seven in the first three frames.
The Lightning broke through in the fourth with a lead off single by Luke Harper (North Alabama) and a two-run moonshot by Jordan Griffin (Carson-Newman) over the left field wall. It was the first homerun of the season for Leesburg.
The Lightning kept the pedal on the metal in the fifth, once again getting the leadoff man aboard after Brett Kelly (UNCG) was hit by a pitch. A bomb off the centerfield wall from Jalen DeBose (FAU) a few batters later gave Leesburg a 3-1 lead. After DeBose swiped his second stolen base of the season, a Chase Malloy (Jacksonville) sacrifice fly made it 4-1.
That would be the biggest lead the Lightning held all game .Unfortunately, it would be short lived.
Will Sprague (Undecided), who entered in relief of Madonna, got touched up by Sanford’s hitters, allowing four of the five batters he faced to reach. Back to back RBI singles by Warde and Danny Andzel (Florida State) cut the Lightning lead to just one, before a three-run blast by Justin Farmer (FIU) gave the River Rats a two-run advantage and the lead for good. Coach Rich Billings thought his pitchers did a good job overall, but also showed some early-season jitters:
“It’s everybody’s first time out. There’s nerves and they’re playing in front of guys they don’t know and are trying to impress. As they settle in, we hope their performance improves.”
The two teams exchanged some runs over the next few innings, including a solo shot by Travis Stapleton (UNF) in the 7th. Coach Billings was impressed with the play of two of the newcomers in Griffin, who went 0-4 in his Lightning debut on Sunday, and Stapleton, who redshirted this past season:
“Those are his [Stapleton] first at-bats in a long time. To get off to a good start the way he did was nice to see. Jordan, after having a rough night last night, was equally as impressive”
In the 9th, Griffin would cross home plate once again, making it 8-6 and scoring what would be the game’s final run.
Although the Lightning put up six runs and collected eight hits, they were held back by miscues, committing three errors in the field and throwing 5 wild pitches. The biggest area that coach Billings wants to clean up is the strikeouts. After striking out ten times against Winter Garden on Sunday, the Lightning struck out eleven times tonight.
“Too many strikeouts, I was frustrated with that. We had multiple guys with multiple strikeouts… We gotta cut down the strikeouts.”
The Lightning will be back in action on Tuesday night at 7 p.m for the final game of their two game series against the Rats. After their initially scheduled home opener against the Squeeze was rained out on Saturday, they’ll get another chance to open up 2021 play at Pat Thomas Stadium on Tuesday night.
Matias Weilmann (Ithaca College)