Illini's Season Comes to a Close Against No. 10 Michigan
May 9, 2014
Evanston, Ill. - The University of Illinois softball team played close to Big Ten Co-Champion No. 10 Michigan for four and a half innings, but a two-out grand slam by Caitlin Blanchard in the bottom of the fifth helped lift the top-seeded Wolverines to an 8-2 victory in the Big Ten Quarterfinals. Illinois closes the 2014 season with a 24-26 record, while Michigan improves to 41-11 and will face fifth-seeded Wisconsin in the second semifinal on Saturday.
"We lost to a great team today, one that has so many weapons," said Head Coach Terri Sullivan. "We did some good things, but not enough to win it."
The heart of the order was productive at the plate for the Illini, as Alex Booker got on base three times in her final game as an Illini, collecting two hits and an RBI, and Ruby Rivera was also 2-for-4 on the day. Kylie Johnson and Jess Perkins both singled and scored, and Remeny Perez was 1-for-2 with the team's lone walk.
The Illini took a tough hit early, as leadoff batter Allie Bauch, one of the Illini's hottest hitters, was hurt running down to first base in the first play of the game. Freshman Alyssa Gunther came in to pinch run, then stayed in to play second base for the first time as an Illini, remaining in the game until the seventh inning, when Bauch was feeling good enough to return to the plate.
"That's why every player has to be ready at this level," said Sullivan. "You're only a pitch away from getting the opportunity to play, and I know all of Gunnie's teammates believe in her. She's a tremendous defensive player and she missed the greater part of our season with a broken hand and was really waiting for an opportunity, so we felt good about putting her out there."
Michigan had four batters collect multiple hits in the game, led by Lindsay Montemarano, who singled, doubled and hit a two-run home run to reach in all three at-bats. Lauren Sweet and Sierra Romero were both 2-for-3 with a combined three runs scored, and Caitlin Blanchard drove in the delivery of the game, hitting a grand slam to put the game away with two outs in the bottom of the fifth.
Brandi Needham finished her rookie campaign with a 17-15 record, allowing eight runs, seven earned, on 10 hits and two walks with two strikeouts over the full six innings. Haylie Wagner improved to 21-2 by limiting Illinois to two runs despite eight hits and a walk, striking out four.
Taylor Hasselbach grounded into a double play from Rivera to Perez in the fourth inning, as the Illinois defense finished the season with a program-record 34 double plays turned, greatly surpassing their previous record of 27 set in 2006. The 34 DPs rank 21st all-time in NCAA history and are second in the Big Ten only to Nebraska's 49 turned last season. With tonight's final double play, Perez moved into a tie with Jenna Hall (2006) for the all-time individual single-season record, turning a total of 22 on the year, while Rivera (18) and Bauch (16) set Illinois records at their positions, with Rivera setting a new rookie record as well.
Kylie Johnson finished the season with a .383 batting average, good for eighth-best all-time at Illinois. Jenna Mychko ended the year with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage, marking the most single-season fielding chances by an Illini without committing an error. Additionally, she set a new all-time record for career fielding percentage, posting a .992 over her four-year career at catcher, two points better than the previous record holder, Brittany Koester (2004-07). Booker also goes down in the Illinois record books in several career categories, including posting the sixth-best batting average (.327) and ranking fourth in stolen bases (44).
Michigan got on the board first with a pair of extra-base hits in the bottom of the second. Sweet laced a two-out double to the corner in right, and Montemarano then took the first pitch she saw out of the park in left for an early 2-0 lead.
Illinois loaded the bases with one out in the top of the third on hits by Johnson and Rivera. Sanchez then sent Johnson across the plate with a sacrifice fly to deep left field to cut Michigan's lead in half, 2-1.
Montemarano led off the bottom of the fifth with a double down the left field line. Needham turned to third on a comebacker to get the lead runner out in a run down, but a walk to Sappingfield brought Big Ten Player of the Year Sierra Romero to the plate, who the Illini elected to put on first to load the bases. Blanchard soon made the Orange and Blue regret the move, crushing the first pitch deep to right for a grand slam to break the game wide open, 6-1.
Michigan capitalized on an Illini miscue in the bottom of the sixth, as Sweet and Montemarano started the inning with singles, and an error by Gunther at second allowed them both to score with one out, making it 8-1 heading into the final inning.
Perkins and Evans led off the top of the seventh with singles to left. Bauch returned to the lineup, but popped up to second, then Johnson put the runners in scoring position for Booker with two outs. Booker came through in the final at-bat of her career, chopping an RBI single to short to make it 8-2, but Rivera lined out deep to left field for the final out of the game.
"You know, we fought," Booker said following her final game for the Orange and Blue. "This team has the potential beyond anything that we have ever seen. We have so many young players that really contribute in vital roles on this team."