Leesburg, Fla.- When the Leesburg Lightning and the Sanford River Rats meet on the baseball diamond, they rarely fail to entertain. Tonight’s long-awaited home opener was no exception.
The Lightning (2-1) pulled off a 3-2 win over the River Rats (3-2) thanks to an improbable 9th inning comeback and a sacrifice fly in the 11th by Cam Hill (Georgia College & State). The win gave the Lightning a split in their two game series.
As they did in Tuesday’s win, the River Rats got on the board first on a successful double steal that plated Josh Pearson (LSU). Evan Waterbor (FAU), who was a medical redshirt this past season, served as the opener. Even though he was pulled after the first inning, Coach Billings was happy to see him back out there.
“It was so good to see Evan back out there. That was so good for his confidence.”
The Lightning had a chance in the bottom of the 1st to tie it up, but Chase Malloy (Jacksonville) was thrown out by Jeff Liquori (Florida Southern) trying to tag up from third.
After an uneventful 2nd inning, the Rats doubled their lead in the third when Josh Pearson (LSU) crushed his second homer of the season, this one off of Tyler Tipton (FGCU).
From there, the pitching on both sides dominated. The Lightning mustered only three hits from the 3rd inning to the 8th. They were unable to capitalize on three errors in that time frame, all of which were committed by Brennan Holt (LSU). Leesburg stranded seven runners across six frames, thanks to lights out pitching by Sanford’s starter Demetrius Vizcarra (Pasco-Hernando), who allowed just four hits across seven scoreless.
On the other side, the Lightning pitching staff was once again dominant. After Pearson’s homer in the 3rd, four different pitchers allowed just three walks and two total hits. The dominant pitching, combined with the lack of offense for the majority of the game, caused some frustration for Coach Billings:
“We’ve got to drive runs in the first nine innings. The pitchers did a fantastic job tonight, but they can’t score runs.”
The first eight innings presented issues on offense for the Lightning. The ninth was another story.
Cam Hill, who was 0-7 up to that point, drew a four pitch walk off of Alexander Goff. After a wild pitch moved Hill to second and an injury caused a lengthy delay, Jordan Griffin (Carson-Newman) stepped up to the dish. A routine ground ball turned into a doozy for the Rats defense after Holt, who had come in to play shortstop in the 4th inning, flipped the ball into second, where there was no force. With Hill safe at 3rd and Griffin safe at 1st, the scene was set. A hard hit ball by Luke Harper (UNA) towards Holt turned into an error and after hustling around third, Griffin joined Hill in scoring. After eight scoreless innings, the Lightning had finally broken through. Hill could only laugh as he tried to describe the dugout’s emotions during the 9th:
“Oh my goodness.”
Robbie Scott (UNF) came in to pinch run for Harper, but was stranded on third. Into extra innings they went.
The Rats applied some pressure in the 10th, but were shut down by Zach Henderson (Valdosta State), who struck Josh Pearson to end the inning. The Lightning went down in order in the home half.
Pat Thomas once again tensed up in the top of the 11th with the Rats up to bat. Pearson, who has great speed, started the inning on second base. Justin Farmer (FIU) promptly joined him after forcing a walk from Henderson. A wild pitch moved both Pearson to third and Farmer stole second to put two on in scoring position. Henderson then got Garrett Wallace (East Tennessee) to ground to third, and a well-positioned Drew Stubbs (Eastern Florida) gunned down Pearson at home plate. After battling with Jeff Liquori, Henderson got him to fly out in the infield. With his back against the wall multiple times, Henderson found it in himself to respond:
“In a tough spot, you gotta go back to muscle memory,” said Henderson. “Just do you, throw strikes and everything will fall into place.”
The Lightning once again had a chance to win it, and they wouldn’t squander this opportunity.
With Naphis Llanos (Francis Marion) starting at second, Chase Malloy laid down a beauty of a bunt down the third baseline, but a bullet from Garrett Wallace cooked him by half a step. Regardless, he had done his job and moved the winning run to third base. Hill said postgame he knew he just had to get the ball in the air, and he did just that- a fly ball that hugged the third base line in the outfield was snagged by Pearson, and despite a strong throw, Llanos’ speed beat it out and the Lightning were victorious in extras.
A game as intense as this one was both draining and rewarding for Coach Billings’ squad.
“It’s such an up and down game, you feel exhausted when you leave.” said Billings. “Moving forward, I want them to understand the importance of playing hard until the final out is made. They’ve done that so far. I’m really pleased with the overall effort”
The Lightning are back at Pat Thomas Stadium on Wednesday night at 7 pm to make up Saturday’s game with the Winter Garden Squeeze, which was postponed due to inclement weather. They’ll then hit the road for the start of a three game series with the Winter Park Diamond Dawgs. Saturday’s game against the Dawgs will represent the sixth game in as many days for the Lightning.
Matias Weilmann (Ithaca College)