Early Run Support Leads Illini to Doubleheader Sweep of Penn State

Junior pitcher Pepper Gay lowered her season ERA to 1.92 with 10 innings on Saturday, only allowing two earned runs while striking out 10 batters.
Junior pitcher Pepper Gay lowered her season ERA to 1.92 with 10 innings on Saturday, only allowing two earned runs while striking out 10 batters.

May 5, 2012

Game One Box Score | Game Two Box Score | Photo Gallery

URBANA, Ill. - With 1,259 Illini fans in attendance at Eichelberger Field to celebrate the ninth edition of World's Largest Softball Tailgate, Illinois swept a Saturday afternoon doubleheader with Penn State, taking game one, 4-2, before securing the second contest, 6-3. The Orange and Blue used early run support to total both victories, scoring all 10 runs during the first two innings of play, with all the offense of the opener coming in the initial frame. The Orange and Blue took advantage of Penn State errors in the opening contest before senior designated player Kelley Wedel knocked a grand slam over the center field wall in the second game, while junior pitcher Pepper Gay finished with two runs allowed in 10 innings of work on the day, tallying a win and save in the process.

"It was a long day of softball, but we have a saying and a sign in our clubhouse with one of the mottos of our team, which is `Winners Win,'" Illinois head coach Terri Sullivan said. "It wasn't always pretty out there today and it wasn't one of out sharpest defensive performances. I thought there were some mental mistakes as well, but someone would pick it up for us, whether it was Pepper in the circle or getting the big hits we needed, including the grand slam that gave us some momentum. It is tough to win two in the same day in the Big Ten and we are happy that we were able to do that today."

Game One: Illinois 4, Penn State 2
Illinois capitalized on two defensive miscues in the first inning to take a 4-0 advantage. Sophomore Alex Booker led off with a walk and took second on a wild pitch. Redshirt-junior shortstop Jessica Davis followed with a ground ball to Penn State third baseman Liz Presto, who threw the relay to first base over Kailyn Johnson's head and out of the field of play to score Booker for the 1-0 lead and move Davis to second.

With Davis in scoring position, senior first baseman Meredith Hackett drew a walk before freshman third baseman Jess Perkins reached on a fielding error by second baseman Lauren Yao, allowing Davis to race home to double Illinois' advantage while Hackett moved to third. Two batters later, freshman center fielder Brittany Sanchez added the third run with an RBI-single as a ball hit up the middle deflected off of Penn State starting pitcher Lisa Akamine, with Hackett scoring and Perkins moving to second on the play. Junior catcher Stephanie Cuevas batted next with two on and one out, adding a single to left field to load the bases before freshman second baseman Jami Schkade hit a sacrifice fly ball to left field to reach the 4-0 lead.

In Penn State's half of the third the Nittany Lions offense tallied its first run. Alyssa Sovereign singled as the leadoff and attempted to score when Cassidy Bell followed with a double to the left field wall. However, Booker fielded the ball cleanly and fired a line drive to Davis, who turned and threw home to Cuevas to catch Soveriegn for the first out, with Bell moving to third on the play. Alicia Walker fouled out in the following at bat; however, Bell was able to race to the plate to pull the Nittany Lions within three, 4-1.

Penn State added its final run of the contest in the top of the fifth, using a two-out single to shortstop by Lauren Yao to plate the runner with the bases loaded. Illinois starting pitcher Pepper Gay worked out of the jam to silence the Nittany Lion rally attempt, inducing a ground out to second base by Ellen McNair to close the frame.

The first inning run support proved to be all Gay (21-13) needed to earn the win, doing so by pitching her fifth consecutive complete game. Gay only allowed two runs on seven hits and four walks in seven innings, striking out seven Nittany Lions.

"From the beginning of the year we said we wanted to play our best ball at the end of the season," Gay said. "That is what we are doing now, we are getting the critical wins."

Akamine fell to 11-17 with four runs given up - one earned - on seven hits and four walks.

Game Two: Illinois 6, Penn State 3
Scoring early continued in the second contest, with Wedel connecting for a grand slam to stake Illinois to a 4-0 lead in the opening frame.

"She had been out since the first week of Big Ten play and that means practice to," said Sullivan of Wedel, who had only one day of practice before returning to the lineup on Wednesday against Southern Illinois. "That shows her mental toughness. She is a great player who had been hitting well for us before the injury and there is no better time to have her here."

Booker walked to open the inning, Davis reached on a fielder's choice - with Booker out at second - and Hackett was hit by a pitch after Davis took second on a passed ball. Perkins followed Hackett to the plate and was safe at first when the Nittany Lions were unsuccessful in an attempt to force out the lead runner on a ground ball, resulting in a bases-loaded opportunity for Wedel. The Anaheim, Calif., native delivered with a first-pitch grand slam to center field, with the ball skipping off the top of the wall as it cleared the fencing to clear the bases.

"I was just looking for a pitch to hit to put it in the outfield since the bases were loaded," said Wedel of her approach at the plate during the first inning of game two. "Luckily for me it was in my zone and I was able to just go with the pitch."

The Orange and Blue padded the lead with two more runs in the following frame. Senior right fielder Nikki Simpson walked and stole second before Booker earned her second base on balls of the contest to put Illini on first and second, forcing Penn State to remove starting pitcher Marissa Diescher in favor of Jordan Wheatley. Both runners moved up one bag on a wild pitch by Wheatley before Hackett followed two batters later with a double off the base of the wall to plate Booker and Simpson for the 6-0 advantage.

The Nittany Lions pushed across two runs in the top of the third to pull within 6-2. Bell doubled in the first run with a hit over the head of Sanchez in center while Walker tallied a sacrifice fly out to left field, scoring Bell for the second tally. Penn State added its third run of the contest on a home run during the fourth, as Liz Presto sent a pitch from junior starter Jackie Guy over the wall in left field to reach the final score, 6-3.

Guy (5-10) went four innings to earn the junior's fifth win of the season, allowing three runs on three hits and a walk while striking out two. Gay secured the contest with three frames of shutout softball, walking three while also striking out three to total the Avondale Estates, Ga., native's second save of the season.

Illinois and Penn State conclude the three-game series at Eichelberger Field on Sunday, May 6 at 10:30 a.m. CT. The Orange and Blue will honor the four graduating players on the 2012 roster, including Hackett, Simpson, Wedel and Danielle Vaji. To celebrate the senior class, the Illini will be handing out 100 signed posters at the entrance to the stadium on Sunday morning.

Doubleheader Notes: Wedel's grand slam was the second of the senior's career as Wedel hit one against Kent State as a sophomore on Feb. 14, 2010 ... Gay's 21st victory moved the junior into a tie for sixth all-time in single-season wins, joining Amanda Fortune (2001-04), who went 21-13 in 2001 ... World's Largest Softball Tailgate drew 1,259 fans to Eichelberger Field, the third-highest single-game attendance in program history.