Seventh Inning Heroics Send Illini Past Iowa, 6-0
May 8, 2014
Evanston, Ill. - After six innings of scoreless play, the University of Illinois exploded for six runs in the top of the seventh, jumpstarted by a leadoff home run by freshman Nicole Evans, to roll past Iowa, 6-0, and advance to the Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinals to face top-seeded No. 10/11 Michigan at 4:30 p.m. on Friday. Reigning Big Ten Pitcher and Freshman of the Week Brandi Needham hurled her second five-hit shutout in seven days to set up the Illini's first Big Ten Tournament victory in 10 years. With the win, Illinois improves to 24-25, while Iowa finishes its season at 16-30-1.
"The first game of a conference tournament can always be interesting and defense is so key in those games," said Head Coach Terri Sullivan. "We had to have strong defense for seven innings, and we were getting runners on but just not pushing them across.
"I really like how our team separated offense and defense, and that started with Brandi in the circle, who was tremendous today. She's a first-year pitcher but pitched like a veteran. She had only two strikeouts on the day but boy were they key.
"And then we needed a big hit to jumpstart our offense and another first-year player, Nicole (Evans) came through with just what we needed and the rest of the team followed."
The Fighting Illini erupted for 15 hits in the game, tied for their second-most this season, including eight in the seventh inning, with two doubles, a triple and two home runs. Illinois had at least one baserunner on in every inning, but didn't crack the scoreboard until Evans' leadoff homer in the seventh.
Six Illini batters had multi-hit games, led by Allie Bauch and Alex Booker, who each at three hits an a run, while Booker doubled and drove in a run and Bauch hit a triple. Nicole Evans had two hits in the seventh inning, including a solo home run, and Brittany Sanchez walked, singled, doubled, scored and a drove in a run. Jess Perkins was 2-for-4, Kylie Johnson went 2-for-3 with a sacrifice bunt, and Remeny Perez walked and put the game away with a three-run homer.
Brandi Needham (17-14) picked up her third-straight complete-game victory, limiting Iowa to five hits and a walk with two clutch strikeouts. Kayla Massey did a fantastic job of stranding runners early, but posted a final pitching line of 15 hits, six runs and three walks with seven strikeouts over the full seven innings.
"I give credit to Iowa's pitcher - she has had a great career," said Sullivan. "She was very composed and really has great pitch-by-pitch concentration and gave us some pretty tough pitches when we had runners on."
Iowa scattered five hits across five different Hawkeyes, including a leadoff double by Brianna Luna. Megan Blank drew the lone walk of the game, and Claire Fritsch had a sacrifice bunt.
The Illini extended their program record to 33 double plays in the first inning, as Johnson made a diving catch on a ball to shallow right center, then jumped up and gunned it to Rivera at second to erase Luna's leadoff double. It was the 17th double play turned by Rivera this season, the most for an Illini rookie or shortstop in school history.
"Our defense was so key," said Sullivan. "I thought Jess Perkins did a solid job at third base today. We've been doing a lot of `get dirty' drills the past two weeks at practice and you saw Kylie dive for a ball and double them up early in that first inning. And Allie got a good catch for us too in the infield, diving and getting dirty. That's what's it's about and if you're going to keep going, keep playing hard, you obviously have to do whatever it takes."
Both teams squandered scoring chances in the first inning, as a caught stealing ahead of a double by Booker kept the Illini from crossing the plate in the top half, and a fantastic diving catch-turned-double play by Johnson in right erased a leadoff double by Brianna Luna in the bottom half.
The game continued in similar fashion over the next six innings, as Illinois had runners on base in every inning but the score remained 0-0 through six. However, Evans finally plated the first run of the game in the top of the seventh, drilling a solo home run to right field to lead off the inning.
"We always talk about doing our own job on the team and as DP that was my job today, to get on base and start something up," said Evans. "I was actually telling Coach that Jess Perkins came up to me and said, `Don't let her beat you three times,' and Ruby came up to me before my at-bat too and said, `Get it done, we need something right now,' and so I give all the credit to my coaches, my teammates - they really got me going."
Bauch followed Evans' homer with a drive to deep center field. Erickson nearly made the catch, but couldn't hold on as she slammed into the wall, and Bauch hustled all the way around to third. Johnson followed with an infield single, and RBI singles by Booker and Sanchez soon made it 3-0 Illini.
But it didn't end there. With one swing Perez put the game away, drilling a three-run bomb to right to give Illinois a six-run lead. Perkins followed with a single to right center, and a slow roller up the middle for Evans marked her second hit of the frame, before Iowa finally retired Bauch to end the inning.
Needham allowed a one-out single to Alyssa Navarro in the bottom of the seventh, but that was in for Iowa's offense, as the Illini sealed up the win by a final score of 6-0.
"We always talk about how this is what we live for, this is the time of the year when we're at our best," said Evans. "They got it done today and it looked amazing."
Next Up: Illinois returns to Sharon J. Drysdale Field on the campus of Northwestern to face Big Ten regular season Co-Champion No. 10 Michigan in a Quarterfinal matchup beginning at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, May 9. The game will air live on the Big Ten Network and can be heard on WDWS 1400 AM with Brian Moline on the call.