Illini softball encounters plate struggles in season-opening tournament

Offensive woes continued Sunday for the Illinois softball team, as it suffered its first shutout of the young season, falling 8-0 to Florida International.

Illinois, which garnered just four hits, had opportunities to score, leaving seven runners in scoring position Sunday. The trend haunted them all weekend at the FIU Combat Classic in Miami.

“I felt if we came out and scored early, we could put FIU with their backs against the walls,” head coach Terri Sullivan said. “And we just didn’t get the clutch hit, actually on the weekend we weren’t great with runners on in scoring position until (Saturday’s) game against Michigan State.”

The Illini (2-3) opened season play Friday with two losses, falling to Massachusetts, 4-1, and to No. 25 Louisville, 8-3. On Saturday, Illinois bounced back with a 1-0 extra-inning win against Alabama-Birmingham and an 8-0 five-inning win against Michigan State.

“It’s real disappointing to end with a loss on the tournament,” Sullivan said. “I think our team learned a lot about themselves and what we need to do game to game. And it all comes down to being consistent within your performance and within your play. That’s what all successful teams do throughout the course of the season.”

That lack of consistency was seen on both sides of the plate Sunday afternoon.

Pepper Gay, coming off a complete-game shutout in which she blanketed UAB with 11 strikeouts, started Sunday for the Illini. Although she did not allow a hit, Gay had a hiccup in the third inning, walking two batters.

“I pitched the first two innings and was a little wild,” Gay said. “I wasn’t getting the strikes thrown, and I was walking batters.”

With one out and runners on second and third, Jackie Guy came into to replace Gay.

“Coach wanted to take me out and put Jackie in just to give the batters something else to look at,” Gay said.

Guy struck out the first batter she faced and fielded a grounder to first to end the third inning, keeping the game scoreless.

Guy, who had a complete-game shutout of her own Saturday against Michigan State, would continue to pitch the rest of the game, giving up eight earned runs.

FIU cracked the scoreboard in the bottom of the fourth. With two outs and the bases loaded, Guy walked Beth Peller to give up the first run of the game. FIU added three more runs in the next at-bat, as Brie Rojas doubled down the left-field line.

FIU would add four more runs in the bottom of the sixth to end the game an inning early due to mercy rule.

The Illini offense, which struggled Sunday, showed its potential against Michigan State, scoring eight runs in a mercy-rule win.

Meredith Hackett led the offensive production on the weekend, going 4-of-10 with four RBIs and five walks, including a three-run home run against MSU.

“It felt good to get some runs on the board early, especially against another Big Ten opponent and take it to them,” Hackett said. “But I have to be more consistent as well with runners in scoring position at all times in every game.”

Illinois’ offense produced 26 hits and 13 runs in five games over the weekend.

Without Saturday night’s game against MSU, those numbers drop to 17 hits and five runs in four games.

“The heart of our lineup didn’t do enough this weekend, and we expect more of Meredith, of Kelley, of Jessica,” Sullivan said. “They did come up today with runners on in scoring position and didn’t get it done.”