Illini win series, drop final game to Gophers

After anchoring the Illinois softball team (2-1, 15-11) to two victories Saturday at Eichelberger Field, the Illini’s pitching staff came out flat Sunday, failing to sweep the Minnesota Golden Gophers (19-9, 1-2) in a 14-4 loss.

The Gophers, who were held to four runs in 2-0 and 4-3 Illini victories, came out swinging Sunday, racking up multiple runs against all three of Illinois’ pitchers. Starting pitcher Pepper Gay, who recorded both wins on Saturday, was erratic right out of the gate, allowing three runs in the first inning.

“Today I came out and I was more wild then I had been,” Gay said. “I gave them the three runs in the first inning and I was disappointed I couldn’t finish the game. Then Jackie (Guy) came in (with two outs in the third inning) and she did really well but they were just swinging and they hit our pitches, so credit to them for hitting us.”

After allowing three runs in the fourth, Guy kept the Illini in the game until the seventh, when the Gophers’ offense exploded to score eight runs.

The Illini pulled Guy after back-to-back home runs to start that inning. Freshman Shelese Arnold took the mound but struggled as well, allowing four runs while only recording one out. Gay would return to action — which only starting pitchers can do — to stop the bleeding after allowing a three-run home run herself.

“I thought their whole lineup was aggressive at the plate,” head coach Terri Sullivan said. “I think they’re all tough outs and that does speak to how well our pitchers threw yesterday in throwing a shutout and a three-run game.”

The Minnesota offense tallied 14 runs on 10 hits, including three home runs, with the middle of the lineup leading the onslaught. The Gophers’ five, six and seven hitters combined for 12 RBIs and three home runs.

The 14 runs are the most the Illini have given up all season, as the Illinois pitching staff totaled nine walks Sunday.

“You never want to walk a lot batters,” Sullivan said. “And it’s Sunday and a lot of hitters have seen you, so sometimes a pitcher tries to be a little a bit too tricky instead of just trusting what they have … but I don’t want to take away from Minnesota and what (they) did today, because I thought (they) were pretty darn good today.”

Senior Meredith Hackett led the Illini offense, belting her second two-run home run of the weekend in the third inning. The Corona, Calif., native, who leads the Illini in nearly every offensive statistic, went 3-9 with four RBIs, two walks and two runs during the weekend.

The Illini played well despite the loss, securing a series victory over a strong team in the first week of conference play.

“Sweeps aren’t going to come easy and we knew that coming in,” Hackett said. “But the two wins yesterday were really big. We wanted to at least win the series if not sweep.”