ORLANDO, Fla- In game one of the 2021 FCSL Championship Series, the Winter Park Diamond Dawgs did what they had been unable to do in their three attempts during the regular season: beat the Leesburg Lightning on the road. The Lightning, with their backs against the wall, flipped the script on Saturday night, winning 6-4 to keep their season alive and force a decisive game three.
Both starting pitchers rolled through the first inning, facing the minimum. The Lightning were able to get their first lead of the series in the second inning off a Travis Stapleton (UNF) solo home run into left. Head coach Rich Billings saw the importance of Stapleton’s early bomb following a game where the Lightning lacked energy.
“Travis’ homerun set the tone and got our guys going… The energy was so good throughout the whole nine innings and you need that in a tight ball game. Things went our way and I fully believe that's what happens when you bring the energy.”
The Dawgs responded in the bottom half off Evan Waterbor (FAU), who gave up two hits in the frame. Despite having runners on second and third with just one gone, Waterbor would only allow one run to come in. Winter Park would pounce on Waterbor, who threw a season-high 39 pitches in his outing, in the third inning. After Waterbor issued three straight walks, Dylan Kelley (UNF) relieved him. A sac fly into right scored a run for Winter Park, but a heads-up throw from Jordan Griffin (Carson Newman) in right field doubled up the runner from first. Kelley got out of the inning with a strikeout.
It was then Leesburg’s turn in the top of the fourth. After a Cam Hill (Georgia College & State) walk, Clay Stearns (Troy) got on top of a pitch and crushed his first home run in his last 76 at-bats. Stearns attributed his homerun and the team’s success to being more relaxed.
“We had fun. You get to play baseball and sometimes you put too much pressure on yourself. Tonight we went out, had fun playing baseball like we have all season, and it work out for us.”
The seesaw affair continued in the bottom half of the inning, with the Dawgs matching with two runs of their own. A pair of walks and a wild pitch put runners on first and second with one gone. The next batter, Hayden Duffield (Georgia Southern) then grounded a ball into left field, which surely would have scored a run, but Peyton Carr (High Point) ran into Leesburg’s third baseman Naphis Llanos (Francis Marion) and interference was called. After another wild pitch and an error, Winter Park produced the third lead change of the game and a 4-3 lead.
Going with the theme of the game, the Lightning refused to go away. After the first two reached in the top of the fifth for Leesburg, a beautiful back pick by Duffield took a runner off of second for Leesburg. A passed ball and fly out moved Drew Stubbs (Eastern Florida State) up to third before Llanos punched one into left to tie the game.
The Lightning would grab the lead in the sixth, which would prove to be decisive. A Chase Malloy (Jacksonvilele) walk and Hill sacrifice put a runner on in scoring position for the Bolts. Back-to-back singles, the latter an RBI single from Robbie Scott (UNF) made it 5-4. For Scott, after going five for his first five in the postseason, the hit snapped an 0-for-6 streak. JD Stubbs (Georgia Gwinett) followed suit with a sacrifice fly into left that scored Stearns, pushing the Leesburg lead to a pair.
The pitching exceeded expectations for the Lightning, with Kelley going three and a third innings. Despite walking four, he constantly pitched out of jams and neither of his runs were earned en route to the win. Blayne Huter (South Florida State), who Coach Billings explicitly took out early in game one to preserve him for game two, came in to pitch with runners on first and second and one gone in the sixth. Huter, who had pitched 24 hours earlier against the same team, was untouchable. Not only did he strike out the two batter he faced in the ining, but he struck out four of the first five he faced. He would go another inning after, punching out a ridiculous six of the eight batters he faced, which set an season-high in strikeouts for the first year arm.
“I knew I had a job to do and Clay helped me achieve that." said Huter. "I was a little tight and worried, but after that first strikeout, I was good.”
Zach Henderson (Valdosta State), who led the league in saves in the regular season, barely broke a sweat in the ninth, striking out the side on just 13 pitches. Huter and Henderson combined to fan nine of the last 11 that came to bat for Winter Park.
With the win, the Lightning kept their season alive and forced a winner-take-all battle at Pat Thomas Stadium on Sunday, with the game being flexed to 1 pm to avoid potential rainouts. A win would represent the first Whiting Cup victory for the Bolts in 11 seasons, while the Dawgs would claim their second in the last three seasons. Coach Billings had one word to describe the necessary mentality heading into Sunday’s “do or die” game three: Grit.
“You’ve just gotta fight. Everyone’s out of gas. You’ve gotta fight through it and show up. The team with the most heart is going to win it.” said Billings.
Colton Bruns (St. Leo) will get the start for the Lightning, while Austin Emener (UNA) gets the call for the Dawgs.
Matias Weilmann (Ithaca College)