LEESBURG, Fla. — The Leesburg Lightning are perfect when it comes to postseason appearances — the Lightning have made the Florida Collegiate Summer League playoffs in each of their nine seasons in the league.
Five of those postseason runs have ended at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, home of Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays and the FCSL Championship game.
If Leesburg expects to make its sixth trip to “The Trop,” the Lightning will have to get past Altamonte Springs in a best-of-three series that begins at 7 p.m. today at Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs.
Leesburg and Altamonte Springs have played five games during the season, with the Boom holding a 4-1 advantage in the season-long series. While that may seem one-sided, four of the five games were decided by one run, with the winning run coming in the final three innings of each game.
Starting on the mound for Leesburg will be its three-headed monster made up of Call Graham, Blake Sanderson, and Darren Kelly. Graham is set to start today’s game and Sanderson will go in Game 2, which is set for 7 p.m. Thursday at Pat Thomas Stadium-Buddy Lowe Field.
Kelly will go in Game 3. If needed, that game will be Friday at Lake Brantley.
Each have been consistent throughout the entire season.
Graham hasn’t faced the Boom yet, which could be an advantage. Although he has an ERA of 4.50, Graham has yet to allow more than three runs as a starter.
In 42 innings pitched, Graham has given up 38 hits, walked 25, and struck out 27 batters.
Sanderson has faced the Boom once — on July 2. He went six strong innings, allowing two runs, none earned, on four hits while walking two and striking out five.
In 44 2/3 innings, he has a 1.81 ERA — seventh lowest in the league — while leading the team with 33 strikeouts. He has given up 40 hits and only 11 walks, the lowest number of passes by a Lightning starting pitcher this season.
Kelly, Leesburg’s ace, has the most experience against the Boom, facing them on June 17 and July 11.
In those two starts combined, Kelly gave up two runs, none earned, on five hits. He walked three and struck out seven in 13 innings pitched.
Opponents are hitting .191 against Kelly — making him dominant start after start.
Kelly has a 2.80 ERA while giving up 34 hits, 20 walks, and striking out 32 batters.
The number of innings per start has increased throughout the season for the Lightning trio. That will be a major factor in the long-run of the playoffs.
However, if the starters falter, Leesburg’s bullpen has been a strong point for the club.
Christian Townsend, Dan Twitty, and Drew Peden have been the most successful against the Boom over the course of the season, and as of late, they have been lights out.
Combined, they have thrown 78 2/3 innings and allowed 25 runs, 19 earned, on 61 hits. They have a 2.17 ERA with a 2.42 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which means hitters go to the plate needing to swing their bats to get on.
Townsend and Peden have each had success against the Boom this season – holding them scoreless on 10 hits while walking five and striking out 10 in 11 2/3 innings pitched.
Pitching and the bullpen will get their job done, as they always have, but the question traces back to the Lightning offense.
Which offense will show up?
The potent offense that scored 12 runs against DeLand and nine runs against the FCSL Regular Season champions Sanford River Rats, or the offense that only scored only two runs on 11 hits, while leaving nine runners in scoring position?
Consistency on offense has been a struggle all season long.
Leesburg has a team batting average of .244 with runners in scoring position, but drops off to .188 with two outs and runners in scoring position.
Doug Teegarden, Igor Baez, and Austin Simmons are the three outliers when hitting with runners in scoring position.
Teegarden is hitting .360 with RISP, while Igor Baez is slightly behind with a .348 batting average. Simmons trails them both with .318.
These three will be major contributors to the Lightning lineup when there is a spot for Leesburg to push a run across.
A few guys, however, have feasted on the Boom.
Austin Simmons makes things happen whenever he is in the Lightning lineup. Against the Boom, he has a .467 batting average while plating three and scoring two runs of his own. He has seven hits — one being a double.
Tanner Long has a .311 batting average. In 23 at-bats against the Boom, he has six hits (two doubles) and five RBIs.
Both, Leesburg and Altamonte Springs have strong pitching, but each offense has been lethargic at times. A key might be getting on the scoreboard early and turning the game over to a stout bullpen.
The winner of the series will move on to play at Tropicana Field on Sunday in the FCSL Championship game. The will follow the Tampa Bay Rays-New York Mets game, which is scheduled for 1 p.m.