DeLAND — The game had ended but the Winter Garden Squeeze lingered.
The first-year franchise’s players embraced and shook hands with one another, in between mingling with the team’s coaches, staff and supporters.
The Squeeze’s 5-1 loss to Winter Park on Friday in DeLand ended the season for Winter Garden, giving the Diamond Dawgs a 2-1 victory in a best-of-three Florida Collegiate Summer League playoff series.
After playing 43 games over the course of 59 days, Friday’s loss meant the young men on the Squeeze’s roster would soon be heading back to their respective college programs — making for a bittersweet end to an otherwise successful summer and inaugural season for the Winter Garden franchise.
“It’s kind of a sad time … we’ve been staying together, as a family, basically every day,” pitcher Chris Fee (St. Andrews) said. “[It’s] a great group of guys all heading back to their schools.”
The franchise’s first experience in the FCSL Playoffs got off to an encouraging enough start for the Squeeze.
Winter Garden won Game One against Winter Park, 5-4, on the road in DeLand (the Diamond Dawgs’ home field, Alfond Stadium, was unavailable for the playoffs).
That win meant that the Squeeze would return home for Game Two needing one win in the next two games to advance to the FCSL Championship on Sunday.
And that’s when Winter Garden’s bats went cold.
The Squeeze scored just two runs over the next two games and, in Friday’s season-ending loss, registered just one hit — but not for lack of putting the ball in play.
“We squared up a lot of balls, we just didn’t find any holes [in the defense],” Squeeze head coach Ruben Felix said. “We probably had eight good hits and nothing to show for it.”
The Diamond Dawgs got a stellar outing in their series-clinching victory from Devin Raftery (Nova Southeastern). Raftery was dominant in 7.1 innings of work, receiving the win, with a double by Winter Garden’s Miguel Ceballos (Virginia Tech) the lone blemish on his performance.
“To me, [Raftery] … he’s probably one of the best pitchers in the league,” Felix said, going on to praise his ability to get ground ball outs. “You need guys who can pound the zone down and he’s a guy that does it … my hat’s off to him.”
A look back
The Winter Garden Squeeze finished their inaugural season with a 23-20 record, going 22-18 in the regular season and 1-2 in the FCSL Playoffs.
Given the recent history for expansion franchises in the FCSL, it was a successful debut for the franchise in Winter Garden both in terms of on-the-field accomplishment and planting roots for the future.
The FCSL’s College Park franchise debuted in 2013 after relocating from south Orlando and won just 10 games. The Orlando Monarchs, who had to shutdown operations due to the destruction of Tinker Field as a part of the renovations at the Florida Citrus Bowl going on this summer, debuted in 2012 and won 19 games.
Both teams struggled with attendance. Attendance for the Squeeze varied, with a mix of strong showings balancing out some relatively sparse crowds, but FCSL President Rob Sitz said that the team has gotten off to a strong start with its first season under its belt and that the league is focused on keeping a team in Winter Garden.
“I thought it was a great success — the community really supported them,” Sitz said. “Our plan is to be there [in Winter Garden] in the long term.”
Both Squeeze General Manager Adam Bates and Felix addressed the team one last time before they parted ways on Friday.
Felix, who played summer league ball during his own collegiate career, stressed the importance of the players remembering the time they spent with the team this summer and keeping in touch. That friendships made on the ballfield can be enduring is something Felix can attest to firsthand — his college roommate and summer ball teammate, Tony Perez, was the assistant coach for Winter Garden this summer.
“Hopefully they build friendships … those are relationships you’re going to remember for the rest of your life,” Felix said. “You’re not going to remember the individuals games … you’re going to remember the relationships and the friendships.”
For many of the players, there was also a sense of pride in being the first incarnation of the Squeeze. Fee, who played in the FCSL a season ago for the DeLand Suns, said it was an experience he will remember.
“I feel very proud,” Fee, who starred at Olympia during his prep career, said. “I still remember when I heard in the spring last year … that the Squeeze was starting up in Winter Garden.
“I was all-in for it.”
Dawgs take league title on Sunday
As it turns out, Winter Garden’s defeat came at the hands of the eventual 2014 Florida Collegiate Summer League champions.
Winter Park defeated the Sanford River Rats on Sunday at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, 6-4, to claim the league’s crown. It marked the second consecutive league championship for the Diamond Dawgs, who defeated Leesburg a season earlier in the final, 3-0.