- By Jay Morrison Staff Writer
It’s debatable what soared higher Saturday afternoon, the go-ahead home run Wright State junior Peyton Burdick launched in the bottom of the seventh inning, or the bat he flung in the air halfway down the first base line to celebrate the shot.
Burdick’s two-run homer off UIC reliever Alex Padilla capped the comeback after a disastrous fourth inning as WSU won the Horizon League championship and earned a berth to the NCAA tournament with an 11-9 victory at Nischwitz Stadium.
“(Padilla) spiked a curveball the pitch before, and I told myself ‘he’s going to throw a fastball here,’” Burdick said. “I just told myself ‘don’t miss,’ and I didn’t miss.”
On his trot toward first base, Burdick looked into the WSU dugout and put a finger to his lips in a “ssshhhh” motion.
“(The Flames) started chirping and I couldn’t do that to their dugout, so I had to keep it within ours,” said Burdick, who flipped the bat as high as he could after making the gesture.
The victory sends WSU to the NCAA tournament for the ninth time as a Division I program, and third in the last four years. The Raiders will find out Monday at noon whom they will play and where.
Burdick’s ninth home run of the season helped him earn tournament MVP honors, but it was teammate Zach Weatherford who was the catalyst to the comeback after UIC erased an early 5-0 deficit with a seven-run fourth to go up 8-5.
Weatherford’s solo home run with one out in the seventh preceded Burdick’s game-winning homer, and he added an RBI double in the ninth for an insurance run as part of his four-hit afternoon.
“After Z hit his, it was like ‘all right, now it’s my turn to do something,” Burdick said.
The Raiders outscored their three opponents 31-12 in the tournament, winning their first two games easily before surviving the wild championship game.
Wright State scored five runs in the first inning to jump out to an early lead, but UIC got seven in the fourth via three extra-base hits, four walks, two WSU errors and a hit batter.
“I brought the guys up after that and said ‘If you thought this was going to be easy, you’re crazy,’” WSU coach Jeff Mercer said. “That got a little bit of a laugh and a smile, and I said, ‘We’re going to be fine. We’re going to be fine because we’re the better team and we’re more prepared and we’re tough as hell. We’re going to keep coming and keep chugging along and we did just that.”
The Raiders got an RBI single by Zane Harris in the fourth to make it 8-6 and closed within 8-7 on a Seth Gray RBI single in the bottom of the sixth, but UIC’s Aaron Ackerman led off the seventh with a solo home run to push the lead back to two.
Then Weatherford and Burdick struck.
“When you’ve got superstar players that are able to go out there and compete like crazy, you keep putting the bat in their hand and they’re eventually going to find a way to come through for you,” said Mercer, the HL Coach of the Year. “It was the first time we’ve shown that resiliency. We’ve done it every day all year, and we did it again today. I expected that from them.”
After Burdick gave WSU the lead, Daniel Kreuzer retired UIC in order in the eighth, and staff ace Ryan Weiss, who started Thursday’s tournament opener, nailed down the save with a perfect ninth to set off the celebration.
In addition to Burdick and Weatherford, HL Player of the Year Gabe Snyder also had a big day, going 4 for 4 with two runs scored, an RBI and a stolen base.
Jeremy Randolph earned the win in relief after bouncing back from a rough start that saw him walk the first three batters he faced in UIC’s seven-run fourth.
Weatherford somehow was omitted from the all-tournament team despite hitting .462 (6 for 13) with six RBIs, three runs scored and two stolen bases.
The six RBIs were the most of any player, and his six hits and one home run were tied for the most, while his 10 total bases were one shy of the tournament lead.
Joining Burdick on the all-tournament team were Seth Gray, JD Orr, Bentley Jones, Caleb Sampen, Chase Slone and Ryan Weiss.