Wright State coach Jeff Mercer used an unusual, yet thoroughly accurate word to describe his slight-framed starting pitcher Friday afternoon.
“That guy’s a monster,” Mercer said of Caleb Sampen after the lanky, 185-pound sophomore took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of the winners bracket final of the Horizon League tournament.
Sampen lost his no-hit bid with two outs in the seventh on a solid single to left, but WSU had a double-digit lead by then, well on its way to a 10-1 triumph of UIC at Nischwitz Stadium.
“Going in I knew they were a very well-pitched, well-coached team so it was going to be a pitchers’ duel,” Sampen said. “So we talked about mixing early all of my pitches and getting everything in the zone. Just make them beat you. Being able to throw all my pitches for strikes was probably the biggest thing today.”
Sampen (5-0) allowed just one baserunner through 5.2 innings, but he issued back-to-back walks and hit a batter to load the bases and bring the tying run to the plate. But Sampen got UIC cleanup hitter Scott Ota to ground into an inning-ending force out to keep his no-hitter intact.
“Caleb Sampen was absolutely tremendous,” Mercer said. “He’s a guy you can really rely on, and he showed up today. Great players are tough and competitive, they love the spotlight and they love to be in the big moment, and Caleb’s that guy to a T.”
After Sampen got out of his only jam in the top of the sixth, the WSU offense scored six runs with two outs to blow things open with a 10-0 lead that marked the fifth consecutive game the Raiders have scored in double figures.
“We know we’re capable of, and we had good at-bats all day,” said WSU No. 9 hitter Zach Weatherford, who was 2 for 3 with two RBIs.
Weatherford’s two-run single in the bottom of the fourth was the first hit of the game sparked the four-run frame.
Then his RBI bunt single with two outs in the sixth started the six-run onslaught.
“The call came from the dugout because the third baseman was back, and I just trusted it and put it down,” Weatherford said.
UIC manager Mike Dee, still stewing from a missed call a few minutes earlier on a pickoff throw to third base that would have ended the inning, earned an ejection just seconds after walking out to question whether Weatherford beat the throw at the first.
The Raiders added five more runs after the ejection on two-run singles by JD Orr and pinch-hitter Alex Alders and an RBI single by Peyton Burdick.
“We hammered balls the few innings and had nothing to show for it,” Mercer said. “Finally the competitiveness of our at-bats kind of wore on them and our ability to take balls and make (UIC starter Charle Cerny) be in the zone. And as good as he is, he eventually kind of lost feel.”
UIC scored its lone run on a play that put a scare into the WSU dugout. With the bases loaded and two outs, Raiders first baseman Gabe Snyder — the Horizon League Player of the Year — made a diving catch in foul territory in shallow right field and nearly threw out UIC’s Joshua Figueroa at the plate after he tagged up.
Snyder hurt his left arm on the dive and had to come out of the game, but Mercer said he didn’t think the injury was serious.
“He just slammed the inside of his elbow and hopefully he just kind of hyper-extended it and kind of hit the funny bone,” Mercer said. “I almost yelled ‘don’t catch it.’ I didn’t care about that. We’re up by 10 runs. But players want to make plays. So you can’t take that competitiveness out of them.
“It was a great catch, but I just want to keep the best player maybe in program history healthy,” he added.
WSU goes into Saturday’s 12 p.m. game against the winner of the UIC-Milwaukee game needing to win one of two games to claim the title and advance to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years.
If the UIC-Milwaukee winner beats Wright State in the first game Saturday, there will be a winner-take-all final at 4.