It's unknown whether the breeze felt after the game was a gust of wind from impending severe weather or the collective exhale from the Crusader dugout. Regardless, Valpo won an 8-7 thriller over UIC in its opening game of the Horizon League Conference Tournament Thursday at Eastwood Field in Niles, Ohio.
Perfect eighth and ninth innings silenced a potential UIC comeback in a tilt where Karch Kowalczyk earned his tenth save and five Crusaders recorded multiple hits.
For the fourth straight game, Valpo played from behind.
Designated hitter Ryan Boss led off the Flames' half of the second with a ground-rule double to center field. Alex De LaRosa then muscled a pitch into right field to set up runners on the corners with no outs.
Webb got catcher Alex Jurich to roll over on a pitch for a double play, but Boss scampered home to give UIC a 1-0 lead.
The Crusaders finally cracked UIC starter Tomas Michelson in the top of the fourth. After Bryce Hara and Tanner Vavra both reached to start the inning, John Loeffler sacrificed the two into scoring position.
Chris Manning bounced a ball down the third base line that caromed off the bag and allowed both runners to score. Manning ended up on second base for his ninth double of the season.
A Spencer Mahoney ground out to the right side moved Manning up 90 feet. With two away, Elliott Martin bounced an infield single down the third base line that scored Manning. Martin's first run batted in since March 16th gave the Crusaders a 3-1 lead.
Valpo extended its lead to 4-1 in the fifth inning. After reaching on an error, Andrew Bain came around to score on a Hara single to left. The base hit gave Hara his fifth multi-hit game of the year.
A Joe Betcher sacrifice fly cut the deficit in half in the home half of the fifth.
Valpo delivered the knockout blow in its half of the sixth inning.
Michelson walked Manning, the first batter of the inning, before surrendering back-to-back run-scoring hits. Mahoney rifled a pitch into the right center gap before Martin notched his second RBI single of the day.
2012 Horizon League Tournament MVP Mark Johnson got in on the fun as he peppered the right center field wall with an RBI double. Hara made it an 8-2 game with his sixth sacrifice fly of the season.
After a scoreless bottom of the sixth inning, the Crusaders appeared to have the game well in hand with a six-run lead.
But in their third time facing Webb, the Flames belted out a five-run 7th inning. The first four batters of the inning reached against Webb before Ben Mahar was called on in relief.
The sophomore battled command issues in his first inning of work as he allowed all three inherited runners to score as well as another one tagged to him.
With the momentum residing in the UIC dugout, Mahar redeemed himself with a perfect 8th inning.
Kowalczyk worked a perfect 9th inning for his tenth save of the season.
Valpo (29-26) will face the winner of #4 Wright State/#1 Milwaukee tilt on Saturday morning at 11:00 am ET/10:00 am CT.
Chris DeBoo (4-7, 4.78) will make the start for the Crusaders.