Illinois softball extends winning streak with win over Southern Illinois

It took extras.

That could be said of the Illinois softball team’s entire season, but Wednesday afternoon in Carbondale, Ill., took an extra inning of play to determine a winner. The Illini showed their resiliency and came away victorious.

After a nine-game losing streak, the Illini have turned their season around to the tune of nine straight victories.

The Illini (20-25, 9-11 Big Ten) got their ninth consecutive win by overcoming early struggles and beating Southern Illinois (24-26, 12-10 Missouri Valley) in eight innings, 4-2.

“To win an extra-inning game at this time in the year really speaks a lot to the determination of this team,” head coach Terri Sullivan said, “We had some players step up and do big things for us.”

For both teams, it was a game of missed opportunities, as the Salukis left 12 runners on base while Illinois left 11 stranded.

Senior pitcher Pepper Gay spent all eight innings in the circle for the Illini, but struggled early on, showing shades of her previous outings this season by throwing seven walks in the first five innings pitched.

Gay said Sullivan’s positive attitude helped the pitcher gain back focus after a rough start.

“In the first three innings, I threw a little wild, but I then just started getting used to the strike zone, getting more aggressive and using more energy to throw,” Gay said.

Gay’s control was the only sore spot in a five-hit, eight-inning complete game, but it was damaging.

Gay gave the Salukis a lead in the first by walking in a run.

Illinois quickly struck back, scoring two runs in the top of the second. Senior Jessica Davis stole home and a sacrifice fly by freshman Katie Repole pushed another run across.

Southern Illinois tied the game in the bottom of the inning on a single by third baseman Kelsea Ashton.

The Salukis threatened again in the bottom of the sixth when right fielder Morgan Barchan reached second base on an error by Gay, but Ashton popped out, ending the inning.

But the difference in the game came in the top of the eighth inning, when Illinois capitalized on a pair of bases-loaded opportunities and scored two runs, taking the lead 4-2.

Freshman outfielder Kylie Johnson’s drove in Davis on a fielder’s choice, and a sacrifice fly by sophomore Brittany Sanchez scored Bauch for an insurance run.

“I had a rough day at the plate,” Johnson said. “When it came down to it, I had to do my job.”

Gay returned to the circle in the bottom of the eighth, holding off the Salukis offense after allowing a pair singles in the inning.

“Pepper really had key strikeouts,” Sullivan said. “She threw some terrific pitches and was very aggressive.”

Illinois’ nine-game winning streak is its longest of the season. The team has skyrocketed up the Big Ten standings, now locked in a tie for sixth place with Ohio State after sinking to last place just two weeks ago. But even with the success, Johnson said the team is focusing on its next game and taking it one game at a time.

“They’re glad to be playing at the level they feel they are capable of,” Sullivan said. “Every game is tough at this time of the year.”

Sean can be reached or @NeumanntheHuman.