Three-Run Eighth Pushes Illini Past Eastern Illinois, 4-1
April 12, 2012
CHARLESTON, Ill. - Third baseman Jess Perkins tied the game with the first home run of the freshman's career and redshirt-senior Danielle Vaji doubled in the winning run in the eighth as the Illini earned a 4-1 victory at Eastern Illinois on Thursday evening. Perkins finished the day 2-for-3, adding a double and a walk to reach base three times in the game.
"I am so proud of this team today," Illinois head coach Terri Sullivan said. "We had our backs against the wall down 1-0 in the sixth, a familiar place in several of our last few games, but this team never feels sorry for themselves, it sticks together and fights. Jess Perkins came through with a huge home run, we needed that type of hit, it was clutch. Then our upperclassmen, Nikki Simpson, Danielle Vaji and Jessica Davis, stepped up for us in the eighth to put a few more on the board."
The Orange and Blue broke open the contest in the eighth inning with three runs on a trio of hits. With one out, senior Nikki Simpson singled through the left side and advanced to second on a ground out by sophomore Alex Booker. Now with two away in the frame, Vaji sent an 0-2 pitch down the left field line to score Simpson for the eventual winning run, taking third on the play.
"I knew that when Alex moved Nikki over to second I needed to hit the ball down and hard to move Nikki over and get myself on base," Vaji said. "[After falling behind 0-2 in the count] I was really focusing on being fast with my hands and when she [EIU pitcher Stephanie Maday] brought the pitch I wanted, I did that and Nikki was able to score."
After Perkins walked and took second base on defensive indifference, redshirt-junior Jessica Davis singled in both runners with a ground ball through the middle of the infield, extending the lead to 4-1.
"After Jess was walked I was looking to keep the momentum going and get that extra run for [starting pitcher] Pepper Gay," Davis said. "In my first few at bats I was seeing the ball well and, in the eighth, I was not going to let them get me out after intentionally walking Jess. I just wanted to step up for my team."
Eastern Illinois (20-17 overall) earned its lone run in the bottom of the fourth as Melise Brown led off with a triple. Two batters later, Reynae Hutchinson totaled an RBI-ground out to second to plate Brown for the 1-0 lead. EIU was primed to continue scoring; however, a strong defensive play by Booker held the Panthers to one run. After Hayley Pieper followed with a walk to move Hutchinson to second, Ally Seplak singled to left field. Hutchinson headed for home looking to double Eastern Illinois' lead only to be tagged out by sophomore catcher Stephanie Cuevas following an on-target throw to the plate from Booker.
"Key to this game were some outstanding defensive plays," Sullivan continued. "Alex Booker's throw home and Cuevas' tag at the plate were big! Jessica Davis stole a hit up the middle by completely laying out for a ball and Pepper was Pepper - composed and tough."
Entering the sixth inning behind Eastern Illinois, 1-0, Perkins drove a 2-1 pitch over the left field wall for Illinois' first run of the contest. In her first year with the Orange and Blue, Perkins has adapted to college pitching immediately to earn a team-leading batting average (.298) with the most runs scored (15) among all Illini, while standing among the Illini leaders in hits, total bases, walks, slugging percentage and on-base percentage.
"She [Stephanie Maday] beat me with a couple pitches already, so I was looking for something I could hit," said Perkins when describing her approach during the sixth inning. "She gave me what I was looking for and I was able to execute. I went up there just looking to get something for the offense. The whole team stepped up today and brought the bats. It was a fun win."
The Illini twice moved runners to second in the early innings, though Illinois was unable to break through against EIU starting pitcher Stephanie Maday. In the second, Davis led off with a walk and stolen second; however, junior right fielder Jackie Guy, sophomore designated player Jenna Mychko and Cuevas each struck out to strand Davis. In the following frame, Booker singled to left-center field and stole second base before Vaji followed with a ground out to Maday in the circle to end the third inning.
Illinois continued to pressure in the fourth, with Perkins doubling to left field before Davis drew another walk - putting runners on first and second with no one out. After Guy grounded into a fielder's choice during a sacrifice bunt attempt, with Perkins out at third, Davis was caught stealing at third on a hit and run attempt for the second out. Mychko concluded the frame with a ground out to first, leaving Guy at second in the process.
Junior starting pitcher Pepper Gay tossed another gem in the circle for Illinois, finishing with one run allowed on six hits and one walk, striking out seven Panthers. With a strikeout of Carly Willert in the eighth, Gay moved past former Illini Monica Perry (394) and into second place on the all-time Illini career listing, eventually finishing the contest with 395 strikeouts after setting down Amanda Bilina on strikes to end the contest. Maday took the loss for EIU, falling to 11-9 with four runs allowed on six hits and three walks, striking out 10 batters.
The Illini (17-18, 2-7 Big Ten) faces Wisconsin (22-12, 6-3) next, hosting a doubleheader broadcast on the Big Ten Network beginning at 4 p.m. CT on Saturday, April 14. Illinois and Wisconsin follow with one additional contest on Sunday, April 15 at 1 p.m. CT to conclude the three-game slate between the squads.