Illini Softball Sizzling

Looking inside the Illini's eight-game winning streak.

Let's go back to April 14.  The Illinois softball team had an 11-25 record.  They were in last place in the Big Ten standings with a 1-11 mark.  They had won just one game in their last 13 tries, including a nine-game losing streak.  Then a couple of things happened.  First, the one and only Loren Tate wrote a column about the team's struggles this season.  Second, Terri Sullivan switched up the lineup.  Which made a bigger difference?  I'll let you decide.

First, let's look at the numbers.  They certainly weren't pretty on April 14.  First, let's look at some batting numbers for the Illini, as of April 14:

  • .229 batting average
  • .310 on-base percentage
  • .327 slugging percentage

Ugh.  Not pretty.  Now for the pitching numbers, again as of April 14:

  • 4.22 ERA
  • .252 opponents batting average
  • 1.85 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched)
  • 209 walks, 154 strikeouts in 233.7 innings

Again, not pretty.  Any time you're allowing nearly two runners to reach base per inning, you're going to struggle.  As of April 14, the Illini had been outscored 188-101 in 36 games, or by more than two runs per contest. 

So, what happened?  The biggest change came in the batting order, with outfielder Alex Booker being moved from the leadoff spot (where she was doing very well) to the third spot in the order, where she could have more opportunities to drive in runs.  The results?  Well, they speak for themselves.  Here are the Illini's offensive numbers during their eight-game winning streak:

  • .338 batting average
  • .410 on-base percentage
  • .491 slugging percentage

That's more like it!  They've scored 54 runs in those eight games, an average of nearly seven per game.  Not only has Booker continued to hit well in the third spot in the order, but shortstop Jessica Davis has really turned her season around.  She had a .233/.356/.384 line as of 4/14.  Since, she's been raking at a .400/.464/.760 clip.  That brings her season average/on-base/slugging totals to .276/.383/.480.  She's just one example of Illini batters warming up along with the weather this spring.

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What about the pitching?  Senior Pepper Gay and sophomore Shelese Arnold have stepped up their game as well.  Here are their combined numbers during the eight-game winning streak:

  • 1.94 ERA
  • .209 opponents batting average
  • 1.24 WHIP
  • 25 walks and 28 strikeouts in 54 innings

That walk to strikeout ratio isn't setting the world on fire, but it's MUCH better than it was previously.  Gay and Arnold are both throwing more strikes.  They're not getting a ton of strikeouts, but they're allowing fewer baserunners and letting their defense make plays behind them.  They've also tossed three shutouts during the winning streak, with Arnold getting two and Gay one.

Amazingly, if the Illini sweep this weekend's final regular season series at home against Ohio State, they'll finish over .500 in the Big Ten, as they enter the weekend with a 9-11 mark in conference play.  They don't have enough games left to get over the .500 mark in the regular season, so their only hope for an NCAA Tournament bid is to win the Big Ten Tournament in Lincoln next week.  The way they're playing right now, they've at least got a chance, which you couldn't have said with a straight face two weeks ago.

The Illini are tied with OSU for sixth in the Big Ten as of today.  If they win that series, they'll likely claim the #6 seed in next week's Big Ten Tournament.  That's the best they can do, as the top five teams are too far out of reach.  That means the Illini will have to win four games in four days.  That's not quite as daunting in softball as it is in basketball, but it will be a tall task.  Maybe Tate can write another column about them...

You can hear the first two games of this weekend's Ohio State series on WDWS-AM.  Friday's first pitch is at 6pm, and Saturday's game starts at 2pm.  The Saturday broadcast will begin immediately after Illini baseball, which starts at noon.

Thanks for reading.

bmoline@wdws.com

Twitter: @bmoline11

[thumbnail photo courtesy of FightingIllini.com]

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