CHICAGO, Illinois – The UIC Flames were crowned the 2017 Horizon League Tournament champions for the fifth time in program history Saturday as it took out Wright State, 4-2, at Granderson Stadium in an emotional title game. The victory marked the 39th of the season for the Flames, matching the program record previously achieved in both 2002 and 2003.
Facing a 1-0 deficit, UIC (39-15) used a three-tun fifth inning, powered by a two-run triple from David Cronin, to move out on top of the Raiders (38-21) and maintain the lead the remainder of the game, adding an important insurance run with two outs in the sixth.
The Flames have earned the conference’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament as they advance to regionals for the first time since 2008. UIC will find out its first-round destination on Monday afternoon during the selection show at 11 a.m. CT on ESPN2.
How It Happened
UIC was forced to play from behind after it fell behind by a run in the top of the first inning. Starter Jack Andersen got a pair of quick ground-ball outs before WSU’s Matt Morrow took him deep to the opposite field and the ball landed in the Flames bullpen to give the Raiders a 1-0 lead.
Following Morrow’s home run, Andersen regrouped and seven consecutive hitters before Zach Weatherford singled up the middle to lead off the top of the fourth. Morrow followed with a seeing-eye single through the left side to give Wright State two runners aboard with nobody. Andersen spun off another grounder to Cody Bohanek at shortstop and the All-Horizon League player started a 4-6-3 double play. The next hitter, Seth Gray, hit a ball that appeared destined for center field, but Cronin ranged to his right to track it down and fire on to first just in time to end the inning.
UIC looked to capitalize in the bottom of the frame when Rob Calabrese laced a double down the left-field line. Scott Ota walked, but WSU’s Jeremy Randolph got out of trouble with a fly ball to left field and an inning-ending double play.
The Flames finally broke through in the bottom of the fifth. Brandon Gibis reached on an error and advanced to second base on a sacrifice bunt from Thomas Norton. Mickey McDonald walked before Cronin was ahead in the count 3-0 against Randolph. Ball three would be the last pitch that Randolph would throw as he left the game with an apparent injury. After WSU’s Derek Hendrixson was allowed ample time to loosen up, Cronin stepped back into the box and uncorked his second triple of the tournament, one that scored Gibis and McDonald to give UIC a 2-1 lead.
After Cody Bohanek drew a free pass, Calabrese hit into a fielder’s choice that allowed Cronin to score, increasing the lead to a pair of runs at 3-1.
The Raiders got one of the runs right back in the top of the sixth. JD Orr drew a lead-off walk and he eventually scored from second base with two outs when Gabe Snyder poked a single through the box.
Hanging on to a one-run lead, the Flames tacked on another insurance run in the bottom of the sixth inning. Ricardo Ramirez picked up his second hit of the day, a single to center field, and he moved to second on a sacrifice from Bowen Ogata. Then with two outs, Norton delivered a base hit to shallow right-center field that allowed Ramirez to score and increase the home team’s advantage to 4-2.
Andersen turned the ball over to the bullpen in the seventh inning. Charlie Cerny fanned the first two Raiders he faced before serving up a two-out single to Kevin Whatley. The sophomore came right back and punched out Brandon Giltrow looking to end the inning.
In the eighth inning, it was Connor Ryan’s turn to tackle the Raiders in relief. The senior worked a 1-2-3 inning against the top of WSU’s lineup, striking out Morrow with the bat on his shoulder to end that frame.
Ogata hit a two-out single in the bottom of the eighth, but the Flames could not add to their two-run lead. That meant it was time for the Horizon League Relief Pitcher of the Year, Alex Padilla, to toe the rubber in the top of the ninth. Snyder grounded out to Ramirez at first for out number one before the redshirt sophomore got Gray swinging on strikes for the second. WSU’s Cory Heffron worked a five-pitch at-bat, but the fifth pitch was sent into the outfield, where McDonald squeezed it and a celebration nine years in the making ensued.