DELAND, Fla- After three plus hours of stressful baseball, the Leesburg Lightning (20-11) emerged from Tuesday night’s contest a 7-5 victor over the DeLand Suns (14-16). With the win, the Lightning completed the two-game sweep of the Suns and secured a spot in their second straight championship and the eighth in team history.
The Lightning generated three base runners in the first inning, but weren’t able to break through until the third inning. Still facing Suns starter Isaiah Brewington (NC A&T), Jesse Hall (Troy) and Naphis Llanos (Francis Marion) reached base on a hit by pitch and single, respectively. A subsequent Chase Malloy (Jacksonville) single up the middle opened up the scoring. After Clay Stearns (Troy) was also hit by an errant pitch, a Robbie Scott (UNF) double into left scored two to open up a three run lead. A passed ball would then score Stearns to make it 4-0 Lightning.
Jacob Bradshaw (UNA) had been dominant to start the game, facing the minimum through the first two frames. The third inning, like it had for Brewington, presented trouble for Bradshaw. After two Suns scored and five reached base on a mix of walks, hits and errors, Bradshaw gave way to Jackson Spiller (FAU), who proceeded to punch out the next two to not only limit the damage, but leave the bases loaded. Head Coach Rich Billings was happy with what Bradshaw, who allowed just one hit and struck out three over two and a third, gave the team.
“Bradshaw got us off to a good start,” said Billings. “He gave us a chance to save some guys for the championship series.”
The Suns scratched another run across in the fourth off of Spiller on a Dominick Scavone (Stetson) RBI single into left to make it 4-3 Lightning.
The Lighting would find a way to respond in a big way in the fifth. Connor Udell (Georgetown), who hadn’t allowed a run in all of July, had retired four of the five he had faced entering the frame. The Lightning, through two singles and a hit by pitch sandwiched in between, scratched a run across on a Cam Hill (Georgia College & State) RBI single. Having seen enough of Robbie Scott, Udell intentionally walked him to load the bases up. Brett Kelly (UNCG) got the job done regardless, with a sac fly into right scoring the third and final run of the inning to make it 7-3 Leesburg. Coach Billings was equally pleased with the team’s run production as he was with the manner in which they did it.
“The crooked numbers were positive, and also the fact that we did it through small ball.”
From there, the Lightning offense was shut down for the remainder of the game. Connor Udell and Logan Griffith (NC A&T) combined to retire 12 of the next 14 they faced, although a Robbie Scott triple in the eighth certainly made things dicey. For Scott, he is now 5-5 in the playoffs with seven runs batted in and has hit for the cycle over the last two games combined. After struggling in the first half of the season, Scott is happy with his turnaround.
“It feels good to come in after I struggled in the 1st half and play well,” said Scott.
DeLand’s offense would continue to apply pressure, but the Lightning arms out of the bullpen put out fire after fire. Gerry Kelly (Undecided) and Blayne Huter (South Florida State) took care of the next three innings, allowing a combined two hits and one earned run while striking out five. The lone run, which came in the sixth, was off an RBI single by Dominick Scavone to make it 7-4. Coach Billings was elated with what his bullpen provided.
“Gerry did a good job and Blayne was outstanding. It was one of the best outings I’ve seen him [Blayne Huter] have… our pitchers did a good job of hanging in there against a really gritty lineup.”
The eighth inning got dicey for Connor Gleeson (Gardner Webb), who recorded two outs but allowed a pair of base hits and a walk. One of those hits went to Scavone, who recorded his third RBI single of the game, all of which went into left field. With just five outs remaining, coach Billings decided to go to his big closer in Zach Henderson (Valdosta State), who led the FCSL in saves during the regular season with four. With the bases juiced, the Lightning only leading by two and the balance of the game hanging in the air, Henderson induced an inning-ending line-out to none other than Robbie Scott in right field. One of Scott’s main takeaways from the game was the team’s resilience down the stretch.
“This team gels together well and we know how to bounce off each other in tough situations. What’s big about this team is being able to pick up our guys after some struggles.”
Tasked with closing out the game, the man they call “Hendo” sat the Suns down 1-2-3 to end their season and send the Lightning to their second championship appearance in as many years. Henderson said the outing was nothing out of the ordinary for him.
“I’ve always been the clean up guy… It’s just another day in the office.” said Henderson. “I just do me and do what I've been practicing for years.”
Coach Billings had plenty of praise for what both teams brought to the diamond.
“It was probably a lot closer the entire game than it felt. They never quit and they never went away. It’s what you expect from a team with their backs against the wall and they gave us every bit of what we could handle. Our guys battled too, and I was proud of that… It was a really tough DeLand team that I’m really glad we don’t have to play again.”
The Suns certainly had their chances throughout the game, but ultimately could not drive in enough runs. They stranded 11 runners on base, including leaving the bases loaded in both the third and eighth inning.
After the Sanford River Rats defeated the Winter Park Diamond Dawgs in game two of the other semifinal, the Lightning will get Wednesday off as they await their opponent, which will be the winner of game three.
Scott, who’s in his fourth year in the league and has been with Leesburg for the last three, is pumped to play for the team’s third Whiting Cup, which is awarded to the team that wins the FCSL each year.
“Coming off a sweep like this gives us momentum. We really want it this year. We’re excited and we want to win this as much as anyone.”
They’ll get their chance starting on Friday night. In the meantime, they’ll have to wait and see who their opponent is.
Matias Weilmann (Ithaca College)