Junior pitcher Pepper Gay did not allow an earned run in nine innings of work on the day, holding the Gophers to four hits while striking out nine.
March 24, 2012
URBANA, Ill. - The Illinois softball team swept its Big Ten-opening doubleheader against Minnesota at Eichelberger Field, 2-0 and 4-3, on Saturday afternoon. In game one, redshirt-senior second baseman Danielle Vaji went 2-for-3 with a run scored while junior starting pitcher Pepper Gay was dominant in the circle, holding the Gophers to a pair of hits on the contest. In the second game, senior first baseman Meredith Hackett tied the contest with a two-run homer in the fifth, while senior third baseman Kelley Wedel tallied a walk-off RBI-double in the bottom of the seventh to pace the Orange and Blue in their comeback effort.
"In the first game, we took the lead early, which is a team goal, and in the second game we had to come from behind, which is something this team has been doing," Illinois head coach Terri Sullivan said. "That is what the Big Ten is all about, and getting a sweep on opening day is big against a really terrific Minnesota team and pitcher [Sara Moulton]."
Game One: Illinois 2, Minnesota 0
Illinois scored twice on Gophers staff ace Sara Moulton in the first inning to create the difference in game one. Senior right fielder Nikki Simpson reached on a dropped third strike to lead off, advancing to second on a wild pitch during Vaji's at bat. Vaji followed with a single to center field, scoring Simpson when Bree Blanchette's throw from the outfield was offline and bounced away from catcher Kari Dorle. With Vaji moving to third on the previous play, Hackett tallied an RBI-single through the middle of the infield in the next at bat, extending Illinois' lead to 2-0.
Gay made the first inning runs hold up throughout the contest, limiting the Minnesota offense to only a pair of base hits over the complete game effort. The junior right-hander, who improved to 9-3 this season with the win, finished with seven strikeouts against four walks.
Gay stifled a pair of late-inning rallies by the Gophers to secure the Big Ten-opening victory. In the sixth, Kaitlyn Richardson totaled Minnesota's first hit of the game, a double to right-center field. However, with Alex Davis at the plate, Gay induced a lineout double play to second base, with Vaji throwing over to redshirt-junior shortstop Jessica Davis covering second to end the threat.
In the top of the seventh, Dorle walked as the leadoff batter to put a runner on. After Gay struck out Madie Eckstrom swinging for the first out, Dannie Skrove replaced Dorle at first as a pinch runner and advanced to second on a single by the next batter, Erica Meyer. Now with the tying run on first for the Gophers, Gay settled in and got Blanchette to line out to Vaji before Hannah Granger hit into a fielder's choice, with Meyer out at second to end the contest.
"I am really proud of our overall team effort," Sullivan said. "I know coaches say that a lot and it gets to be cliché when you say it is a team effort, but it was and I think what was key was how our pitchers threw. Pepper had a great day and Jackie, after getting scored on early in the first inning, came right back and pitched a solid five innings for us, setting up Pepper very well."
Moulton took the loss in game one, pitching six innings and giving up five hits and two runs - both unearned. Moulton, the Big Ten leader in lowest ERA and most victories, struck out 11 Illini without issuing a walk.
Game Two: Illinois 4, Minnesota 3
In the bottom of the seventh, Hackett was intentionally walked with one away. After Jessica Davis replaced freshman pinch runner Jami Schkade at first on a fielder's choice, Wedel delivered an RBI-double to left-center field to end the game, 4-3. As Meyer, Minnesota's left fielder, extended her arm in mid-stride, the ball bounced off the freshman's outstretched glove hand as she sprinted toward the left field corner. Jessica Davis, running on contact with two away, was able to slide into home plate ahead of the throw to secure the walk-off victory.
"I was just looking to put the ball in play," said Wedel of her game-winning double. "In the previous inning I swung at a really bad pitch in the dirt and struck out. All I was trying to do was put the ball in play, knowing I had a runner on and had to get her [Jessica Davis] home."
Minnesota scored a pair of runs in the first to break the scoreless tie in the second contest, using a two-run home run by Richardson after leadoff batter Tyler Walker reached on a single up the middle. Despite giving up the pair of runs, starting pitcher Jackie Guy settled in to hold the Gophers offense to three hits over the next four frames, finishing with five innings of work on the day.
After Guy closed the top of the fifth with a groundout, the Illini bats rallied with a pair of runs in the bottom of the frame to tie the contest. With two outs, Vaji connected on a 1-2 pitch, sending the ball through the right side for a single. Hackett followed with a full-count, two-run home run to left-center field to knot the game at 2-2.
The Orange and Blue (15-10 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) secured their first lead in the contest during the following inning. After Gay took over in the circle for Illinois and recorded a clean top-of-the-sixth, Wedel led off the bottom of the frame by reaching on a dropped third strike. After Wedel advanced to second on an illegal pitch, freshman center fielder Brittany Sanchez moved the Anaheim, Calif., native to third with a groundout to the right side. Two batters later, Gay knocked a bouncing ball to Gophers second baseman Erika Smyth, scoring Wedel for the 3-2 advantage when Smyth was unable to glove the ball cleanly.
Minnesota (18-9, 0-2) tied the contest in the top of the seventh, scoring on a single by Alex Davis to left-center field. The ball dropped just out of the reach of Jessica Davis as the Illinois shortstop sprinted into the outfield and attempted to make an over-the-shoulder grab on the run. With the bases loaded following the RBI-single, the Gophers looked primed to re-take the lead.
However, Illinois catcher Stephanie Cuevas made a diving play at home following a passed ball for the second out, applying the tag on Walker, who was racing home from third, as the freshman infielder started to slide. Gay then struck Dorle out swinging to hold Minnesota to one run in the inning despite the Gophers having the bases loaded twice in the frame.
"Our defense was very strong," Sullivan said. "We have been working very hard on our defense and we have been looking for that day where we aggressively attack the ball. I thought in particular our middle infielders, Danielle Vaji and Jessica Davis, did an outstanding job attacking the ball and making a few plays."
Guy allowed two runs while issuing three walks and striking out two in the junior's 12th start of the season. Gay improved to 10-3 on the year with two innings of relief, giving up one unearned run on two hits and a walk while sending two down on strikes over the sixth and seventh frames.
Alissa Koch started the second contest for the Gophers, pitching 2 2/3 innings while issuing four walks and striking out three. Moulton was tagged with the loss in the game, falling to 14-7 on the year after allowing four hits and four runs - three earned. Moulton struck out four against one walk allowed in relief of Koch.
Illinois returns to action with one contest against Minnesota on Sunday, March 25 at 1 p.m. CT to close out the Big Ten-opening series at Eichelberger Field. Admission and parking for the contest are free and Illinois softball magnetic schedules will be given out to the first 250 fans through the gates.