Hoosiers sweep Illini softball in doubleheader

Entering Thursday’s doubleheader against Illinois, Indiana pitcher Morgan Melloh led all NCAA Division I pitchers with 397 strikeouts — more than any complete pitching staff in the Big Ten and 120 more than No. 2 pitcher on the conference list, Stephanie Speirman of Minnesota.

Melloh gave Illinois a performance to back up her impressive statistics, pushing her strikeout total to 418 by striking out 21 batters in back-to-back wins over the Illini.

“I just focus on the different pitches that I throw,” Melloh said. “I just focus on where to place the ball. Luckily it’s going my way I guess.”

Indiana (32-15, 12-2 Big Ten) remains tied for first place with Michigan after defeating the Illini 8-0 in six innings and then 3-1 in the second contest.

“You’re playing a first-place team, you need to do everything really well and perfect,” head coach Terri Sullivan said. “We faced a great pitcher today. You can say that we didn’t look very good in the box at all, but she made us look bad with her pitches.”

Sophomore pitcher Pepper Gay got off to a strong start for Illinois (20-20, 7-7) in the first game by striking out two of the initial three Indiana batters, but those would remain her only two strikeouts on the day. Gay managed to hold Indiana’s offense to just two runs before it exploded in the sixth for six runs en route to a mercy rule-shortened victory. Gay finished with five earned runs against her off eight hits. She also walked four batters and hit three.

Melloh, meanwhile, limited the Orange and Blue to only one hit, striking out 11 batters in the first game.

“The pitcher came out and threw a hell of a game and attacked our batters,” Davis said. “We tried really hard. We got runners on, but we never really ended up getting that big hit. She had us guessing at the plate.”

The Illini also struggled offensively in the second contest, totaling three hits and one run.

“She hit her spots well early,” said sophomore pitcher Jackie Guy, who pitched the entire second game. “She got ahead so she didn’t have to throw very many strikes. Obviously that’s every pitcher’s gameplan: throw one strike per at-bat. It really limits a batter’s chance of getting a good hit.”

Sophomore Jessica Davis gave the Illini hope in the fourth when she hit her team-leading 13th home run to pull within one of Indiana.

“I thought we’d feed a little bit off of when we put one on the board after Jess’ hit,” Sullivan said. “And we did, but it was an inning too late.”

Illinois attempted a comeback in the seventh, sparked by a double play from catcher Stephanie Cuevas and first baseman Meredith Hackett. With a runner on first, Cuevas made a diving catch for a foul ball and immediately turned it to Hackett for the second out. Melloh struck out shortstop Danielle Vaji to open the bottom of the seventh, but then walked two batters and allowed a single to load the bases for freshman outfielder Alex Booker.

Booker hit a fly ball to center field for the second out, but Ashley Conrad continued to run to second base after the catch was made, while pinch-runner Laura Tarnawa ran back to second. Conrad was ruled out for advancing past the runner to end the game.

“It really isn’t the story of the game, though,” said Sullivan, who immediately ran onto the field to challenge the call. “It’s how the game ended. It’s not very good base-running I guess on our part if everything went as said. (Umpires) do their job to see the game the way it is, and make the right calls. But that rally needed to start sooner, and that’s more the story of the game.”