Leesburg, FL – The Leesburg Lightning (28-13) closed out the 2018 regular season with a win in game two of a doubleheader against the Sanford River Rats (18-20-1) after dropping the first game to the Rats.
Resilience. That’s what Lightning Head Coach Rich Billings said stuck out to him most about his team this season. “The second half (of the season) we had a ton of injuries, we had some guys leave but they battled through a lot of adversity and they still did pretty well even with all the adversity that they went through,” said Billings, who no doubt is proud of his team’s effort so far this summer. “Some guys stepped in and stepped up and kind of carried us through the second half of the season. It’s been awesome to watch that. The resiliency of this team has been very impressive.”
The Lightning took an early lead, scoring in the first inning like they have many times this season. Luke Brown (Western Kentucky) and Tucker Rayburn (Florida A&M) sandwiched singles around a Jose Crisostomo (Miami Dade) strikeout to put two on and one out for Frank Niemann (Tulane). Niemann was able to drive in Brown with a sacrifice fly, but Rayburn ended up stranded on second base.
Sanford, acting as the home team for game one, got one run back in the bottom half of the first, then proceeded to add one run each in the second and third innings to take a 3-1 lead. Jackson Muldowney (Indian River State) and Cole Warken (Undecided) spearheaded the offensive attack, as both Sanford players collected RBIs in the early parts of the seven-inning game. The Rats were in a good position to add even more runs to their total in the third inning with runners on first and second and just one out, but Lightning reliever William Walter (Florida A&M) made a fantastic play on the mound, snatching a Jackson Muldowney liner out of the air and doubling Cole Warken off of first to end the inning.
A bases-loaded single in the fifth inning scored three more for Sanford, and the Lightning were unable to muster any runs to counter, dropping game one. The 6-1 win locked the River Rats in as the three seed in the Florida League playoffs and rendered game two essentially meaningless, with Leesburg already having clinched the one seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Lightning raced out in front once again, scoring once in the second and once in the third to take a 2-0 lead. Tucker Rayburn reached first and second on a pair of River Rats errors before advancing to third on a Jose Crisostomo groundout. With Sean Mootrey (Georgia Gwinnett) at the plate, Sanford starter Jeremy Peel (St Leo) sent a wild pitch past catcher Josh Crouch (UCF), scoring Rayburn for the first run of the game.
The second run of the game came one inning later when Luke Brown hit an infield single off of the first base bag with Walker McCleney (Alabama) on second base. The ball popped up off of the base and over the head of first baseman Alex Dickinson (Princeton), who had trouble finding while McCleney motored around third and came home to make it 2-0 Leesburg.
The Lightning added an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth, and Pedro Reyes-Ruiz (Miami Dade) closed out a shutout with a flawless seventh inning to close out the regular season with a Lightning win, 3-0.
Leesburg put together a regular season to remember, including the best record in the league, the top seed in the playoffs and the longest winning streak in league history. None of that means anything according to Coach Billings if they can’t top it all off with a league championship. “It was all fun and the regular season was awesome, to experience that and watch these guys play every single day,” Billings said. “Without a league championship, I don’t think it means quite as much. I don’t want to say it doesn’t mean anything, but it definitely doesn’t mean as much.”
Leesburg will kick off their quest for a third league championship on July 31 against the winner of the #4 vs #5 play-in game, either the Winter Park Diamond Dawgs or Seminole County Scorpions.
Matt Holzapfel (Elon University)