2023 Winter Garden Squeeze vs Leesburg Lightning

Florida Collegiate Summer League Championship: Leesburg Lightning Win Title

Florida Collegiate Summer League Championship: Leesburg Lightning Win Title

The Leesburg Lightning are approaching dynasty territory, and unless some other team comes up with an idea about how to stop them, it likely will continue.

Aug 2, 2023 by Briar Napier
Florida Collegiate Summer League Championship: Leesburg Lightning Win Title

The Leesburg Lightning are approaching dynasty territory, and unless some other team comes up with an idea about how to stop them, it sounds as if they’re going to be at the forefront of most Florida Collegiate Summer League championship hunts for years to come.

The top seed for the playoffs, Leesburg stormed to its third Florida League Championship Series in three seasons and finished with another title. The Lightning used a powerful midseason run to their advantage and were paced by a terrific offense the whole way.

It was a banner year for the FCSL, which saw many past stars selected to new professional homes – and many others in this year’s league likely garner the attention of teams scouting the field for next summer’s draft. 

But those on Leesburg’s roster only have to worry about enjoying the winner’s spoils for now, and for those in the front office who pulled the strings to help make it happen, they’ll be left to wonder what’s next and how they can keep the mojo rolling.

Here’s a look at the recently completed Florida League Championship Series, which saw the Lightning defeat the Winter Garden Squeeze in three games to close the curtain on another exciting season of ball in the FCSL.

Shock And Awe For The Lightning

The FCSL regular-season champions, and the highest scoring team in the league (217 runs scored) by a wide margin, Leesburg was the favorite to win it all entering the playoffs and lived up to the hype, taking down the Squeeze 2-1 in this year’s Florida League Championship Series.

Leesburg clinched the fourth title in team history with a 7-2 victory Monday. 

The Lightning swept the Winter Park Diamond Dawgs 2-0 in the semifinals but encountered fierce resistance from the Squeeze in the final series, winning Game 1 5-4, following an epic three-run rally in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Winter Garden knotted up the series at 1-1 with a 4-3 win, holding off Leesburg’s offense for just long enough to stay alive in the postseason. 

In the Game 3 decider in Leesburg, however, the Lightning weren’t denied on the second time of asking. 

After the Squeeze struck first with a run in the top of the first inning, six unanswered runs from Leesburg – including a four-run third inning – gave the Lightning a wide margin to work with, as starter (and series MVP) Daniel Foster threw a gem. He went seven innings, while allowing just one hit, a first-inning home run to Winter Garden’s Todd Clay. 

A 2-for-2 night with three RBIs by Leesburg’s Michael Furry made him a key figure in the Lightning’s title-game push, and when the Lightning’s relievers (Tyler Donay and Ryan Brown) sealed the deal and finished what Foster started by throwing two final frames of one-hit ball, it marked the end of a remarkable season for Leesburg that saw it start at 2-6, then win 19 of its next 22 games to rocket into first place and ride that momentum all the way to the Whiting Cup. 

Santiago Has Big Impact

Don’t be fooled by looks, as you have the potential to get burned. 

Despite standing at just 5-foot-5 and weighing 140 pounds, Lightning shortstop/second baseman Gabriel Santiago stood tall as one of the defining players of Leesburg’s return to the FCSL title, after the team disappointingly missed out on a trophy in 2022, losing in the final series to Winter Park. 

The Florida native, who transferred across Division II to Coker from Newberry ahead of the 2022-2023 season, is a Lightning veteran, having suited up for the squad in the summer of 2022, as well. 

While Santiago definitely was a solid player last year – he finished the 2022 season with a .289 batting average and 28 hits in 32 games – he upped his game in a big way in 2023 and helped lead the Lightning to glory. 

Santiago’s average skyrocketed to .372 this season, making him the FCSL’s batting champion and earning him a nod to the league’s All-Star Game for the first time, while the speedster also had a FCSL-high 30 stolen bases and 34 runs to be an integral part to the league’s highest-scoring lineup. 

He reached home at least once in four of the Lightning’s five playoff games, as well, having his best postseason game when Leesburg needed him most as in Game 3 of the Florida League Championship Series. In the finale, he had two hits, two runs, an RBI and a stolen base, as he did a little bit of everything to help Leesburg close out the summer with hardware for the second time in three years.

FCSL Continues To Shine

Already considered to be one of the premier summer collegiate wood-bat baseball leagues in the country, the FCSL’s pedigree looks as if it’s growing on an upward trajectory. 

For instance, just this year, LSU superstar, national champion and former Sanford River Rat outfielder Dylan Crews (who won the Golden Spikes Award as the best amateur baseball player in the country) became the highest MLB Draft selection in league history when he went second overall to the Washington Nationals last month, joining 25 other FCSL alumni who were either selected or picked up by major-league organizations in this year’s draft cycle. 

Crews being selected so high in the draft can’t even be seen as an anomaly in the FCSL these days. In fact, in each of the past three years, a FCSL alum has been selected in the first round. 

Ex-Seminole County Scorpions standout Gunnar Hoglund was picked by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2021, and former Orlando Scorpion/Diamond Dawgs player Sterlin Thompson followed that up a year later when the Colorado Rockies called his name. 

The number of former FCSL players in the big leagues – right now, 33 and counting – is growing by the year, too, and the names that are part of that exclusive fraternity (including Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom and former National League batting champion Dee Strange-Gordon) are as decorated as it can get in professional baseball. 

The point is this – some of baseball’s stars of tomorrow spend their summers in the FCSL, and of the many names that stood out over the season that just ended, several may be doing the same for a major-league club very soon.