Late-inning breakdowns prove costly for Illini softball

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Illinois’ Ruby Rivera in action against Michigan last season. Rivera was arrested Monday in connection to the vandalization of the Illini Chabad menorah.

The Illinois softball team finished all five of its games within one run over the weekend but pulled out only two wins.

Illinois spent its second weekend of play in Starkville, Mississippi, where it participated in the February Freezer. Head coach Terri Sullivan’s team started off the weekend with a doubleheader Friday, dropping two one-run decisions to Tennessee-Martin and host Mississippi State.

The Illini (3-7) led most of the way through the weekend opener against UTM, but a late-inning comeback ended in a walk-off single in the seventh inning that gave the Skyhawks a 6-5 victory. In the bottom of the sixth inning, Illinois gave up a three-run lead and headed into the seventh tied 5-5. Jade Vecvanags (0-1) replaced Shelese Arnold (2-4) on the mound for the Illini and surrendered the game-winning hit, which was UTM’s only lead of the game.

In the second game of the day, Illinois trailed Mississippi State 8-2 heading into the sixth inning. Despite a two-run sixth and a four-run seventh, Illinois failed to complete the late-inning response. A sixth-inning, pinch-hit solo home run from Kate Giddens gave the Bulldogs all the runs they would need to down the Illini, 9-8.

Illini sophomore Ruby Rivera said the loss to UTM was worse than a usual loss.

“That pissed me off — to think that this team that no one has even heard about just came out the first day and killed us,” Rivera said. “It just seemed like we weren’t even ready to play, and it was really embarrassing.”

The Illini split their two games Saturday, falling 3-2 to Louisiana Tech but beating Lamar, 6-5. Brittany Sanchez put the Illini up 2-1 over Louisiana Tech with an RBI single in the bottom of the fifth inning. But Lady Techster catcher Krysta Tutsch answered with a two-run home run in the sixth, handing the Illini their third straight one-run loss.

Illinois out-hit Louisiana Tech 8-6, but continued to struggle in the clutch, leaving five runners in scoring position. Breanna Wonderly allowed only one run on four hits and a walk in her five innings in the circle. Arnold replaced Wonderly for the final two innings and gave up Tutsch’s homer, in addition to two hits and a walk.

Catcher Jess Perkins led the way for the Illini offense against Lamar, contributing a three-hit, three-RBI effort. Lamar threatened in the top of the third with two runners in scoring position, but centerfielder Carly Thomas made a diving catch on a ball off the bat of Brynn Baca in deep right-center to maintain the Illini lead.

Trailing by three runs, Lamar’s Jenna Holland hit a leadoff triple in the top of the sixth. The Cardinals followed with four consecutive base hits, cutting the Illinois lead to 6-5 before Arnold managed three straight outs. Arnold bounced back from Friday’s loss and picked up her first win of the season. Despite a late-inning comeback by the Cardinals, Illinois secured the one-run victory.

In Sunday’s finale, Illinois handed Mississippi State (9-1) its first loss of the season, knocking off the host, 4-3. The Illini scored all four of their runs in the first inning, while Arnold took control in the circle, capturing her second straight win.

Although she allowed nine hits and four walks, Arnold limited her opponents to just two earned runs and hurled seven strikeouts. Her biggest success of the day was keeping the heart of the Bulldogs’ lineup off the base paths the entire game.

Caroline Seitz and Erika Gaul entered the game with a combined 12 extra-base hits in the first two weekends of play, but finished Sunday’s game with five combined strikeouts. Three Bulldog runners reached third base in the bottom of the fourth, but the Illini infield threw two runners out at the plate.

“They are showing that resiliency again. We had a great finish today,” Sullivan said. “I think Saturday’s one-run victory was really big for this team. Every game on the weekend was a one-run game. As you get deeper into the season, you want to know that you can win those. It says a lot about a team.”

Although her team finished 2-3 on the weekend, Sullivan said that these early losses can have a positive effect on her team.

“I believe that having our back against the wall in every game we played this weekend showed an awful lot of what the team is made of,” she said. “Having these types of game situations at this point in our season is going to prove to make us better and prepared.”

Lauren can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @MrozLauren.