By, Zack Smolen
Sanford, FL – Before the game Friday night at Historic Sanford Memorial Stadium, a playoff atmosphere hung in the air as it would all evening with the top two teams in the FCSL preparing to go at it for a battle over first place in the regular season. The Leesburg Lightning (17-5) entered with a half game lead in the standings but an 0-2 record against the Sanford River Rats (15-6). Sanford came into the game on the hottest of hot streaks, winners of their last eight with a hunger to dethrone their rivals. In the end, after nine innings of perhaps the best contest in all of Central Florida this season, the Lightning emerged victorious by a score of 4-3 in a game that lived up to its heavyweight billing.
Both teams threw their aces Friday evening in what was a pitcher’s duel throughout the entire affair. The Rats’ Jarrod Cande (Florida Southern) pitched masterfully through six innings, allowing just two runs (one earned) on five hits while striking out an impressive seven Lightning batters. “He’s just an incredibly gifted athlete,” said Rats manager Josh Montero, “he’s been doing this for a really long time and he actually touched 98[mph] tonight, which is really exciting in front of five or six scouts that were here to see him.”
Nate Henderson (Flagler) earned the start for the Lightning and impressed, shutting out a potent Rats offense through four and one-third innings while striking out five on the strength of an excellent fastball/slider combination. “I feel like really spinning it has helped me get outs,” said Henderson, “Spinning curveballs, spinning sliders and being able to pump first-pitch fastballs for strikes.”
Tucker Smith (Georgia Southwestern) was stellar in relief for Leesburg in earning his first win of the season. The Leesburg High School alumnus sent six River Rats back to the dugout on strikes, and though he surrendered three runs, never allowed Sanford to get on a roll to take a lead. “They just were around the plate all night long,” Lightning manager Rich Billings said of Smith and Henderson’s collective performance, “They never panicked, even with a couple of home runs that Tucker gave up, he never ever got rattled out on the mound, he just went right back to getting guys out.”
Those home runs came off the bats of Dylan Crews (Louisiana St.) and Tom Josten (UCF), who tagged pitches over the wall for solo shots in the eighth and ninth innings to bring the game within one, as close as the Rats would get to the Lightning in the contest.
Luke Harper (North Alabama) went two for four on the night and came up with an enormous RBI single in the top of the ninth inning to plate the Lightning’s fourth run, the lone insurance they’d end up needing to lock down the victory.
With the win, the Lightning clinched the FCSL regular season crown and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. “It was a really big win,” said Billings, “and mostly just because they deserved it. I really felt like our guys battled all summer long and then they stayed committed to our team, they never quit and more than anything they just deserve to win if not for any other reason than for seeing it through to the end. It couldn’t happen to a better group of guys, I’m happy for them but we still have work to do.”
That work will come in the form of a semifinal match on Tuesday where the Lightning will play in a single-elimination game between the winner of the quarterfinal matchup between the yet to be determined fourth and fifth seeds.
Before that, the Lightning will cap off their regular season with the fourth edition of the Bad Weather Brawl against the Leesburg Storm (10-10-2) Saturday afternoon at 1:30pm at Pat Thomas Stadium.
The River Rats will host the winner of the game between the third and sixth seeds of the playoffs on Tuesday at Historic Sanford Memorial Stadium.