Five-Run Eighth Leads Illini Past No. 22 Michigan, 5-1
April 28, 2012
ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Illinois softball used a disciplined approach at the plate to secure a 5-1 victory over No. 22 Michigan in eight innings at Alumni Field on Saturday afternoon. While the Illini lineup worked eight walks over the contest, the most issued in one game by the UM pitching staff on the season, Illinois broke through for five runs in the top of the eighth to earn the win against the Big Ten-leading Wolverines, who entered the day with a 12-3 conference record.
"Scoring four with two outs in the eighth was huge for us," Illinois head coach Terri Sullivan said. "Our hitters bared down, and this time of year that is usually what it is about, who can get that clutch hit and gain some momentum."
The Orange and Blue went ahead in the top of the eighth, 5-0, scoring four runs with two outs in the frame. With one away, freshman center fielder Brittany Sanchez singled to right field before senior right fielder Nikki Simpson walked to put runners on first and second. After sophomore left fielder Alex Booker singled to load the bases, redshirt-junior shortstop Jessica Davis tallied the first RBI of the game with a fielder's choice ground ball near second base.
"All week at practice we worked on pitch selection and I think we did a better job of that today than we had earlier in the week," Sullivan continued. "When you work on those things at practice and execute that game plan, the coaching staff gets excited about that. We also earned clutch hits late, and Jessica Davis hitting that [fielder's choice] ground ball up the middle was big. Meredith [Hackett] and Jess [Perkins] followed with important hits to give us the run insurance we needed."
With two outs and the Illini in front, 1-0, with runners on the corners following Davis' fielder's choice, senior first baseman Meredith Hackett singled up the middle, with the ball bouncing off second base as Simpson raced home to double the lead. Third baseman Jess Perkins padded the advantage as the next batter with the second collegiate home run of the freshman's career, sending a ball over the fence in left-center field to reach the 5-0 advantage.
"Having those two runs on the board was important, and with two outs and runners on base I just wanted to do anything possible to just get a hit to score Jessica [Davis] from third," said Perkins of her approach at the plate in the eighth inning that led to a three-run home run.
Michigan earned its only run in the bottom of the eighth inning to reach the final score. With two away, Nicole Sappingfield singled in Lauren Sweet; however, Illinois starting pitcher Pepper Gay induced a pop up to shortstop off Amanda Chidester's bat to close the contest.
Gay worked out of trouble with runners on in every inning except the first to limit the dangerous Michigan lineup, which entered the day hitting .338 (144-for-426) in Big Ten contests. In total, the Wolverines earned 15 base runners over the game, including 10 reaching scoring position, only to have Gay settle in to hold Michigan scoreless over regulation and to just one run on the contest. Gay finished with a complete-game effort, striking out five in eight innings while walking seven Wolverines and allowing six hits, improving to 17-13 on the season in the process.
"With the whole team today we saw that the more pressure that existed in an inning the better everyone got," Sullivan said. "Today, Pepper just had that look in her eyes. When we needed strikeouts she got them and that was what we were looking for from her. Great pitchers can give you a strikeout in those situations, and that is what she did. When they had runners in scoring position and we needed an out she came through in different ways."
Gay fanned batters to help silence Michigan scoring chances in the second, fifth and sixth, also working out of runner on third situations in the third, fourth and seventh frames. In the seventh, with the Wolverines primed to earn a walk-off win after Bree Evans connected for a leadoff double, Gay secured a Sappingfield ground out before intentionally walking Chidester. Two batters later, Ashley Lane drew a walk to load the bases only to have Gay induce a fly ball by Amy Knapp to left field to send the game to extra innings.
"From a defensive standpoint we executed our game plan and that started with Pepper in the circle," Sullivan said. "She threw aggressively and pitched incredibly well under pressure. We also made some clutch defensive plays at critical times, especially Alex Booker's catch in left field [in the bottom of the seventh]."
Driesenga took the loss, falling to 8-9 with five runs allowed on four walks and six hits, tallying four strikeouts in relief. Haylie Wagner started and pitched into the third inning, allowing four walks and two hits in the process.
A trio of Illini finished with two hits each, including Perkins' 2-for-5, three RBI, one run scored performance. Sanchez finished 2-for-3 with a run scored and a walk while Booker went 2-for-4 with a base on balls. Hackett was also productive at the plate, going 1-for-2 with three walks, a run scored and an RBI.
Illinois and Michigan are scheduled to complete the weekend series with a pair of contests on Sunday, April 29, with game one beginning at Noon CT.
Game Notes: The win over the Wolverines marks the first in the series between the teams since a 5-3 victory over then-No. 8 Michigan on April 15, 2007, breaking a streak of eight consecutive losses to the Wolverines ... Illinois defeated a ranked opponent for the 35th time in program history ... Gay's complete game marked the 41st of the junior's career, tying Sherri Taylor (2001-04) for second all-time in program history ... Hackett's three walks moved the senior ahead of Shanna Diller (92; 2005-08) for the third-most issued to an Illini, finishing the day with 94 for her career.