Late inning softball victories create end of season momentum

The Illinois softball team has shown the potential to win close games so far this season.

Five of the nine runs Illinois scored this past weekend came in the last two innings of a game, including a walk-off victory against Pittsburgh on Sunday to give Illinois (3-5) their third win of the season.

In a scoreless ball game against the Panthers, the Illini’s third baseman Kelley Wedel doubled with one out in the seventh inning to give the Illini momentum. Jessica Davis followed with a walk, allowing Meredith Hackett to come to the plate and finish the game by sending a hit to left field.

“It was big for our upperclassmen because we’ve wanted to step up,” Davis said. “Us three — Kelly, Meredith and I — put together something and that just shows we are capable of putting something together in the seventh.”

Two of the Illini’s three victories have been won in the seventh inning or later.

Their other late-inning victory came against Alabama-Birmingham, when Brittany Sanchez scored on a wild pitch in the eighth inning to seal the Illini’s first win of the season.

“You have to, especially come end of the year and postseason, show you can win the close ones, that you can come from behind and win the low-scoring games where you have to win with pitching and defense,” head coach Terri Sullivan said. “So I think it’s a really strong characteristic for this team to have that we never really found last season.”

Even when the Illini were down in games, they were able to string together late rallies. Against Tennessee, Illinois scored two runs in the sixth inning and one in the seventh to make the score 10-7; in Game One against Pittsburgh, Illinois scored one run in the seventh off an RBI single by Davis to send the game into extra innings.

“Once it starts getting toward the end of the game, you focus more on getting your hits and getting people on base and driving them in,” Hackett said. “In the first couple of at-bats you can look at the big pitcher and say, ‘Oh I still have like three more at-bats after this.’ But we really need to start coming out from pitch one and put the other team on their heels.”

In contrast to their late-inning success, the Illini have struggled to build momentum early and produce runs at the beginning of the game.

Aside from the six runs in the first two innings against Michigan State, Illinois has scored just one run in the first or second inning in its other seven games. Illinois has made it a team goal this weekend — beginning with South Florida on Friday — to score early in hopes of taking control of the game from the start. As the Illini look to improve their consistency and score earlier, they are positive about their late-inning success early in the season.

“The only score that matters is the one at the end of the game,” Sullivan said. “The ways that we’ve won are sometimes little secrets to success that people don’t find until late in the season. And it seems that this team believes in each other and they know that people can step up for us at the right time and get a big hit.”