The Valparaiso baseball team pounced early on Saturday afternoon and now the Crusaders are one win away from another trip to the NCAA tournament.
Valparaiso scored five first-inning runs against top-seeded Milwaukee and added an insurance run in the eighth inning as the No. 3 Crusaders knocked off the Panthers 6-4 at the Horizon League tournament in Niles, Ohio.
The Crusaders (30-26) will face Wright St. in the championship today and need just one win to head back to the NCAA tournament.
"We want the first game right away," Valparaiso coach Tracy Woodson said. "We told the guys after the game: 'Just one more, that's it.' Let's get it done right away and then we can celebrate."
Valparaiso used a mixture of timely hitting, aggressive base running and poor Milwaukee defense to score five runs in its first trip to the plate on Saturday. The highlight came when Milwaukee pitcher Cale Tassi threw a wild pitch, allowing Valparaiso leadoff hitter Andrew Bain to score from third base and Tanner Vavra to move from first to third in a display of heads-up base running. Vavra later scored on a safety squeeze.
"Getting those runs early was key for us," Woodson said. "That quieted (Milwaukee) down."
Tassi (5-6) was chased before the end of the first inning and Milwaukee's Tyler Thicke shut the door on Valparaiso until the Crusaders were able to scratch out a run in the eighth. Valparaiso starter Chris DeBoo (5-7) worked seven solid innings, giving up just one run while striking out five.
The Panthers (29-20) scored three runs off Ben Mahar in the eighth inning and had the winning run at the plate in the ninth before Valparaiso closer Karch Kowalczyk closed the door for his 11th save of the season.
The Crusaders have used just four pitchers through the first three days of the tournament and have two weekend starters ready to go for the championship.
"It's definitely an advantage (with our pitching)," Woodson said. "Whoever we play, coming out of the loser's bracket, you have to play so many games and use a lot of pitching. We've got experience with this situation and now we've got to go close it out."
Valparaiso advanced to the Horizon League title game out of the winner's bracket last season but lost to UIC in the opening game of the title series. The Crusaders then beat the Flames 14-5 to earn their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1968.