LEESBURG – The Opening Night in Leesburg for the Lightning loyalists as a crowd close to capacity packed at Pat Thomas Stadium on Saturday to watch the football club try and win their first home and second games of the year.
The Lightning did just that when they scored early and often, taking down the Sanford River Rats in game two of the series, 8-3. This only marked the second time since 2015 that Leesburg started the year 2-0.
Right sophomore Najer Victor got his start from manager Rich Billings. Victor continued his success on the mound for the Lightning as he allowed just two hits and struck out a pair in three innings.
“It feels electric to me. The atmosphere here is absolutely crazy,” said Victor, a Clermont native. “It feels incredible to go out and compete in front of a crowd. He’s very supportive.”
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The solid pitch set the tempo for Leesburg
The early success can be credited to the chemistry in the Lighting closet space.
“I feel like everyone is very fast.” Victor said. “We’ve known each other for three days now and it feels like we’ve known each other for a year, it feels amazing.”
Allowing just three races in the past two games, Billings has high praise for the pitcher and a special Victor.
“The pitching staff was amazing tonight,” Billings said. “Najer (Victor) made us down on his right foot. He was really good and set the tempo for the other guys.
The victory was awarded to two right -handers Layton Perry. Lets just get a night run. Perry went two rounds, striking out two and running one.
Like Opening Day in Sanford, Lightning sent six pitchers to face the River Rats lineup. The last four hurlers combined for four innings, one hit, one run, and six strikeouts; Brandon Haston, Ivan VanBeverhoudt Jr., Bryson Galloway, and Casey Daiss.
‘Have some fun’ playing in front of a crowd
As the stadium began to fill, Billings met with the team and gave a quick message about how to play football in front of the Leesburg crowd.
“Whatever you bring to the table as a player, show it today,” Billings said. “Have fun, have fun.”
From the very first inning, Lightning fans had something to cheer on as a throwing error in the pick off for first base by the Mice scored sophomore outfielder Michael Furry from third base.
The Bolts would tack on another run in the inning as senior standout second baseman Noah Best drove in a run on the ground ball for another base that scored junior outfielder Austin Brinling.
The offensive line won’t stop as the pair are lined up in the bottom three as Furry and Brinling will come on to score twice in the ball game. Another miscue pickoff from Sanford, this time in second base, advanced Furry to third who then scored on another wild throw from Rat.
Junior gold glove first baseman Gabe Esquivel came on with a two-line drive into midfield that scored for Brinling and gave Leesburg a 4-0 win after three innings.
Sanford could take one run in the fifth and sixth rounds to pull in two and create a competitive ballgame. However, the Lightning offense has other plans.
The fourth inning will start with a balk -filled balk from River Rat pitcher Aaron Wainright to score shortstop sophomore Carlos Castillo.
One of the last throwing mistakes for Sanford will come from Wainright trying to stop new outfielder Brandon Triplett from scoring on a slow roller back to the mound. The wild throw will bring two runs for Lightning as sophomore infielder Quinn Petty heats up on Triplett’s toes crossing the plate.
Still in the sixth, Brinling added to his stellar performance with an RBI-groundout for a shortstop that scored sophomore catcher Travis Stapleton. After six rounds, Lighting grabbed an 8-2 lead over the Mice and that was all they needed to secure the victory.
Adjustments were made on the offensive side for Lightning and generally on the boxscore. 11 strikeouts in one game were reduced to seven in game two of the opening series and Leesburg could combine eight laps on their way to victory.
“I’m very happy with the strikeout piece.” Billings said. “Our guys were fighting and playing ball with runners in scoring position and we were able to score some runs in some hustle games.”
With the win, Lightning rose to 2-0, while Sanford fell to 0-2.
Tom Cavanaugh is a Leesburg Lightning communications intern.