LEESBURG — Thoughts of running away with the top spot in the Florida Collegiate Summer League may have come too soon for the Sanford River Rats.
Fresh off an All-Star Break that they surged into with wins in 15 of 18 games, the Rats finished one of the biggest weekends of their season on Sunday and came out with a pair of wins and a pair of losses. The up and down weekend left the Rats half a game out of first place with the Winter Park Diamond Dawgs entering play on Tuesday. (The results of Tuesday night’s games between Sanford and Leesburg and Winter Park and Orlando were not available at press time. For full results log on to FloridaLeague.com.)
Sanford came out of the All-Star break firing with a 9-6 win over Winter Park on Friday night to extend their lead in the standings to 1-1/2 games. But the River Rats fell out of first place in a hurry thanks to a crushing doubleheader sweep handed down by the Diamond Dawgs in Winter Park on Saturday.
An excellent outing by Sanford starter Josh Strawn against Leesburg on Sunday put the Rats back in a tie for first while Winter Park was idle. But the Dawgs struck back with a victory over DeLand on Sanford’s Monday off day to regain their half game lead on first.
The Rats only scored 18 runs over the four game stretch, but big bats Tyler Benzel and Jabari Blash brought the thunder as both homered during the weekend and are vying for the Florida League MVP trophy.
Friday: Sanford 9, Winter Park 6
The bats were out in full force and the River Rats were able to put up seven runs in the first four innings Friday night against Winter Park, besting the Diamond Dawgs 9-6.
Jabari Blash (Miami-Dade CC) was the headliner with his two-run homer in the bottom of the fourth. The long bomb was Blash’s third on the season. Blash finished the day 2-for-4 with three runs scored.
“I was feeling good tonight and [Sterrit] threw me a fat fastball over the plate,” Blash said. “I’m in a groove right now and my bat is going well.”
Coach Davey Johnson described Blash’s fourth inning home run as “beautiful.” The River Rats right fielder now has as many home runs for the season as he hit in last Wednesday’s All-Star Home Run Derby and is currently tied for second in the league in big flies one behind Winter Park’s Mark Hutton for the lead.
The Rats were able to take a quick 2-0 lead off of Diamond Dawgs starter Jack Sterrit (UCF). Sanford capitalized on Winter Park’s early mistakes as the Diamond Dawgs made two errors and Steritt issued three walks allowing the Rats to score twice in the first without the benefit of a hit.
BJ Zimmerman (State College of Florida) added on to that lead with an RBI single in the third, making it 3-0 Sanford.
River Rats lefty Jake Fisher (Connors State) got the start and did not let down the Rat Pack faithful. Fisher went a solid 5-1/3 innings giving up just one run on six hits. In the process he struck out three Diamond Dawgs but walked three as well.
“I thought Jake was outstanding. It was one of his better games. His pitch count did get a little high, but overall it was a great effort.” Johnson said.
Centerfielder Brandon Thomas (Georgia Tech) had a terrific evening going 2-for-3 with a double, two runs scored, two RBI and two stolen bases.
“Everything about Brandon’s game is on right now,” said Johnson, who also noted he has seen major improvements in Thomas’ swing.
Credit Winter Park for not throwing in the towel down 7-0. Sam Kimmel — the league leader in batting average – crushed an RBI double in the fifth and Winter Park would add another run in the sixth to cut the lead to 7-2.
Rat relievers Spencer Medick (Hampden-Sydney) and Jeremy Strawn (State College of Florida) denied the Dawgs any runs in the seventh and eighth and the Rats added on to make it 9-2. Strawn even added two strikeouts in his lone inning of work.
Trailing 9-2 in the top of the ninth, Clint Chrysler’s Winter Park squad refused to call it quits. Dejai Oliver (State College of Florida) gave up a walk and allowed a sacrifice fly to Kimmel, making it 9-3 in favor of Sanford.
Things got interesting when Brad Hutton (Ohio State) smothered an Oliver fastball over the left centerfield fence for a three-run homer, making the score 9-6. But Oliver was able to recover and second basemen Todd Hankins finished the game with an exclamation point, gunning out Ted Blackman (St .Pete College) at first to finish off the win.
Saturday: Winter Park 8, Sanford 2 – Game 1
Even with ace Zach Haile (High Point) on the mound, the River Rats weren’t able to handle the wrath of Winter Park offense in game one of a Saturday doubleheader as the Diamond Dawgs roughed up the River Rats 8-2 in seven innings.
Haile lasted just 3-2/3 innings giving up four runs, six hits and an unusual two walks. After the Rats took a 2-1 lead in the top half of the fourth, Winter Park did the brunt of their damage in the bottom half, scoring three runs.
The newest Diamond Dawg, Spencer Theisen (Stetson), kept his torrid pace at the plate intact with a two RBI double to right field. Sam Kimmel (Indian River State) brought home Theisen on a single, ending Haile’s night with the score at 4-2 Winter Park.
Diamond Dawg starter Trey Dahl (South Florida) was nothing short of brilliant on the mound. Dahl’s seven innings were good for the complete game in the doubleheader. He struck out six River Rats and had zero walks.
Dahl’s only mistake was giving up a two-run homer to Tyler Benzel (Florida Southern), Benzel’s third homer of the season. Benzel continues to rake, leads the league in RBI with 24, is top 2 in all three Triple Crown categories and is near the top five in every offensive category. He is without question on the short list of league MVP candidates.
“I’ve been keeping it simple and I just keep working. Talking with [coach] Davey Johnson has helped too.” Benzel said.
But after the fourth inning surge, Sanford’s offense went dormant. Dahl allowed just one hit the rest of the way and got the final six outs of the game in order. The Diamond Dawgs would tack on two more runs in both the fifth and sixth innings.
Saturday: Winter Park 9, Sanford 1 – Game 2
The momentum from Game 1 clearly wasn’t lost in the break between games as the River Rats offense remained lifeless and the Dawgs pounded Sanford pitching late in Game 2.
With their 9-1 win, Winter Park gained sole possession of first place.
At first, the nightcap seemed like it could go into extra innings, as after four, the game was still scoreless. Sanford starter Trey Pilkington (Alabama) was coasting along all the way up until the fifth inning when he allowed four runs.
Brad Hutton and Mitchel Brennan (Tallahassee) got things started with back-to-back bloop singles and both would score on ensuing fielder’s choice plays. Later in the inning Sam Kimmel crushed a double sending home two more Winter Park runs.
Things wouldn’t get any better for Sanford when reliever Jacob Knott (Seminole State) entered in the sixth inning. The Diamond Dawgs were able to bat around as Knott gave up four earned runs, walked three batters and allowed three hits.
“It was one of those days. We only scored three runs total in two games and that’s just not going to cut it,” said Sanford coach Davey Johnson. “Sometimes you have bad games. I was still pleased with most of my pitchers today.”
Though the loss knocked them from the top, team leader Tyler Benzel wasn’t worried about one bad day at the park.
“We aren’t going to dwell on these losses. There’s still 10 games left in the season and of course in the playoffs anything can happen. But there [are] things we can take away from today and improve on.”
Todd Hankins made sure the Rats didn’t get shut out with an RBI double in the seventh. Brandon Thomas added two singles in the loss.
Sunday: Sanford 6, Leesburg 2
Though they were reeling from a doubleheader sweep, all the Rats needed to cure what ailed them was a date with the Leesburg Lightning on Sunday.
Propelled by a gutsy effort from starter Josh Strawn (Southern Polytechnic State) Sanford defeated Leesburg for the seventh time in eight chances with a 6-2 win.
Strawn pitched from the stretch the entire game, battling a nasty blister on his right foot but he allowed just two runs in his seven innings of work. After a two-run first inning blip, Strawn calmed down, allowing just three hits the rest of the game.
“He had a little rough first inning, but he settled down and made some adjustments. I was thinking of using him in the eighth, he was that good today,” Johnson said.
Strawn wasn’t helped much by his offense until late in the ball game. Kelvin Clark (Florida Southern) scored on a Nick Delgudice (Florida Atlantic) throwing error in the fifth to make it 2-1 Leesburg. But even then it looked like the River Rats bats had carried over Saturday’s offensive woes into Sunday.
Then the Rats hit their seventh inning stride.
Lightning starter Nic Kovacs (Lake Sumter) entered Sunday leading the Florida League in ERA and was outstanding through six, but fatigue may have affected the righty in the seventh.
Clark led off the inning with his 10th double of the year, down the leftfield line. Clark was 2-4 on the day and played well in his first start in centerfield. Benzel followed with a single and BJ Zimmerman drove home Clark with a single of his own to tie the score at two.
Zimmerman ended the afternoon going 2-4 with an RBI, a run scored and a triple. His defense was on point as well as Zimmerman scooped up several tough hops at first base.
“Davey had a meeting before the game telling us to relax and not worry,” Zimmerman said. “That’s what I did today, just went up to the plate and relaxed.”
After a rough start to the season, Zimmerman has hit in eight of his last 10 games.
“[He] has been on the verge of breaking out and you saw what type of player he can be today,” Johnson said.
The Rats would go on to score five runs in the seventh, thanks in large part to Leesburg reliever John-Michael Blake’s three walks. Blake walked home two runs with the bases loaded.
Dejai Oliver came in to weather any brewing Lightning storm and got back in step. In the two innings Oliver pitched, he had three strikeouts and didn’t give up a hit.
“I really like Oliver at the end of games. He’s got a great fastball and slider and he’s been a starter before too, so he can throw for a while.” said Johnson.
BACK HOME WEDNESDAY
After Tuesday night’s game in Leesburg, the Rats (23-10) return to Sanford, where they are 12-3 this season, on Wednesday to host the Lightning in what will be the third straight game between the two teams. First pitch from Historic Sanford Memorial Stadium is scheduled for 7 p.m.
On Thursday night both the Rats and the DeLand Suns, who will be known as the Village Sluggers, will make the trip to the Villages for the annual game there at 7 p.m. The Rats are off Friday night.