It might only be the seventh-inning stretch in the Major League Baseball season, but in the Florida Collegiate Summer League they’re heading to the bottom of the ninth.
The FCSL regular season concluded over the weekend. The Sanford River Rats ended the regular season with the league’s best record, edging out the Winter Park Diamond Dawgs by just one game.
The deciding moment in the race to the top of the final regular season rankings may have came on Friday, when the two teams played with just a half game separating them. The Rats came out ahead in that one, 6-2, to give them a decisive advantage heading into the final weekend before the postseason.
The teams had been locked in a two-way battle at the top of the league all season.
“I think all year it’s been competitive on the field,” said Rob Sitz, president of the Florida League. “The playoffs, it’s always competitive, so I think it’s gonna be some great playoff series.”
In the Florida League, five of the six teams make it to the playoffs. The No. 4 and 5 seeds open up the postseason with a one-game play-in game to see who has the right to advance to the best of three semi-final round against the No. 1 seed.
This year, the No. 4 seed is the Leesburg Lightning, and the No. 5 seed is the Deland Suns. One of those teams’ seasons will be over come Wednesday.
“We’ll find out who gets in from Leesburg and Deland, anytime you gotta win to go on it’s always an exciting game,” Sitz said.
Along with Sanford, Winter Park, Leesburg and Deland, the final team to make the playoffs in the FCSL was the Winter Garden Squeeze. The Squeeze will play Winter Park in the semi-final round.
“I think Winter Park and Winter Garden is gonna be a heck of a series,” Sitz said. “Both teams are playing good baseball and are very talented teams.”
The only team not to make the playoffs was the College Park Freedom.
The winners of the two best-of-three series in the semi-final round will then play in a one game, winner-take-all championship at Tropicana Field.
Leesburg and Deland are at a disadvantage heading into the playoffs because they have to play each other in the play-in game. But in such a short postseason, and with the championship itself only being one game, anything can happen.
In 2011 Sanford finished just 16-22, good for only fourth in the regular season standings. But they got hot at the right time and ended up winning the postseason championship, defeating Winter Park in the final game, 7-5.
Last year Winter Park walked away on top. After they finished 27-13 and won the regular season championship, they didn’t lose a game in the playoffs and eventually defeated Leesburg in the finale, 3-0.
This summer’s playoffs began with the Leesburg-Deland play-in game on Tuesday night at press time. The best-of-three series started Wednesday, continues on Thursday and concludes on Friday if necessary.
And it’s more than just playoff baseball that fans can get excited for in these semi-final series. The Florida League is running a promotion for local playoff games where fans can print out a coupon from the league’s website, and redeem it at ballparks in DeLand, Sanford, Winter Garden and Winter Park to receive a game ticket, a hamburger and a beer for just $7. Games at Leesburg are not participating in this promotion.
Sanford and Winter Park, finishing with the top two seeds, will hold home field advantage in their respective series. This means that they will host game one, go on the road for game two, and come back home for the deciding contest if the series requires a third game.
After the two series wrap up, Saturday will be an off day before the two playoff winners head to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg on Sunday, Aug. 3.
“It should be a great playoffs and then on to Tropicana for the championship, which is another ‘win one game and you win the championship,’ so it should be an exciting game,” Sitz said.
Before the Florida League Championship game on Sunday, the Rays have a home game of their own against the Los Angeles Angels. First pitch of that game is scheduled for 1:40 p.m., with the Florida League game scheduled to start at 6 p.m.
Attendance is free for the Florida League game, so fans can either purchase a ticket to the MLB game and stick around, or come in once the pros have finished. Gates will open about an hour prior to the start of the game, depending on how long the MLB game takes.
All of this adds up to be a partnership very beneficial to both fans and the entire Florida League.
“The Tampa Bay Rays have been very generous,” Sitz said. “They donate their field to us for [the game]. It’s a great relationship we have with them there and it’s a great experience for the players and fans to watch a Florida League baseball game at a Major League Stadium, so it’s a win-win for everybody.”