Horizon League baseball tournament starts Wednesday at Wright State

The Wright State baseball team celebrates after beating Milwaukee 21-3 in the Horizon League title game Saturday at Nischwitz Stadium. Wright State Athletics photo

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The Wright State baseball team celebrates after beating Milwaukee 21-3 in the Horizon League title game Saturday at Nischwitz Stadium. Wright State Athletics photo

Raiders are the No. 1 seed and will play their first game Thursday

FAIRBORN — The Horizon League baseball title race came down to the final series of the regular season. While scoreboard watching is easier than ever with iPhones in every dugout, Wright State coach Alex Sogard wasn’t interested in any updates.

The Raiders, who were bidding for their fourth straight crown, had a one-game lead over Oakland on the last day and were playing at Milwaukee. The surprising Grizzlies, who set a program record for wins this year, were at Northern Kentucky.

“I’m sure we had a number of guys checking scores, but I told them, ‘Listen, if we take care of business, nothing else matters,’” Sogard said. “I did get word from our trainer in the seventh inning of our game Saturday that Oakland was losing by quite a bit in the ninth. As good as that was, we were losing our game. I was like, ‘I really don’t care. I want to win this game. We can’t bank on them losing.’”

Sogard didn’t want the Raiders to back into the title — and they didn’t. They rallied with two runs in the ninth to force extra innings and won it 7-6 in the 10th, finishing 27-25 overall and 20-9 in the league, two games ahead of Oakland (29-25, 18-11).

They’ll host the HL tourney again and will play at 11 a.m. Thursday against the lowest-seeded first-round winner, while the second-seeded Grizzlies also earned a bye and will play at 3 p.m. against the highest-seeded first-round winner.

No. 4 Purdue Fort Wayne meets No. 5 Youngstown State at noon Wednesday, and No. 3 UIC faces No. 6 Northern Kentucky at 4 p.m.

The double-elimination tourney concludes Saturday with the finals scheduled at noon.

“This tournament will be interesting because I think every team has a legit chance to win it — just because it comes down to pitching, and everyone has a couple good arms,” Sogard said. “You catch any team on the wrong day, and they’ve got an opportunity. I think that’s the beautiful thing about baseball. In other sports, it may be the athleticism. In baseball, there’s always going to be a competition, which is what you want.”

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The Raiders have won seven of the last 11 regular-season titles, and they’ve fared well when the tourney has been at Nischwitz Stadium.

They’ve won five of the last six there, marching through the bracket unscathed all five times. The only misfire came in 2019 when they went 1-2 after a dominant year.

They’re 13-7 at home this season but finished with their fewest regular-season wins since 2013.

“Some of our main guys are down a little bit,” Sogard said. “We’ve gone through more adversity, struggling more than in years past. But I think the guys have done a really good job of picking each other up. I told them the other day, ‘In the tournament, stats don’t matter. Talent doesn’t matter at the end of the year. It’s all about your heart and the fight in the dog.’”

A year after batting .339 as a team and leading the nation with 10.5 runs per game, Wright State ranks third in the league with a .274 average and first in runs at 7.3.

Sophomore Alec Sayre (.340), redshirt freshman Justin Riemer (.323) and sophomore Julian Greenwell (.317) are all in the top 10 in batting. Junior Gehrig Anglin leads the league in home runs with 16, helping the Raiders to a league-high 68 so far (19 more than the next-best total).

“Last year, I’ve joked and said it was a little bit of a unicorn of a year,” Sogard said. “We were 28-4 in conference, which is video game stuff. A lot of the games were high scoring. It was a lot easier to go out there and play loose when you’re up 10 runs.

“This year was more of a challenge for us. We’ve played more tight games. I continued to remind the guys: ‘These are the types of games you’re going to see in the tournament or in the (NCAA) regional. You’ve going to have to win one-run games.’”

The Raiders will likely stick with their usual rotation of sophomore Jake Shirk (5-6, 5.26 ERA), redshirt-freshman and Chaminade Julienne grad Sebastian Gongora (4-1 5.75) and junior Alex Theis (5-1, 3.46).

The staff is near the bottom of the league with a combined ERA of 6.35, but, as Sogard pointed out, that number was inflated during a 1-8 start while facing nationally ranked Georgia Tech, Oklahoma State and Virginia Tech.

“From a record standpoint, it would have been easy to get defeated. But our guys kept battling,” the fourth-year coach said. “And the last month and a half, our starting pitching has been phenomenal — I think the best in the league.”

The tourney may be wide open, but Sogard likes the heart in his team and the size of the fight in the dog.

“When it really mattered, the guys have done a really good job. … Anytime we’ve been knocked down, we’ve responded,” he said.

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