Pepper Gay threw both games of Sunday's doubleheader — 301 pitches in all. The Illini lost the opener 3-0 despite Gay surrendering only one hit, to the second-to-last batter of the game. In Game 2, the senior threw a three-hit shutout in a 1-0 victory.
URBANA — Pepper Gay was one pitch away from a feat never achieved in the history of Illinois softball.
It was not one the UI senior would cherish as her home career at Eichelberger Field came to an end Sunday. That would come later.
The right-hander was potentially a single pitch away from being the first Illini pitcher to throw a no-hitter in a losing cause.
Gay’s 182nd pitch — on a two-strike count to Taylor Watkins — was poked into short right field for the lone Ohio State hit in the Buckeyes’ 3-0 opening game win.
One of the happiest people in the Ohio State dugout was first-year hitting coach Jenna Hall, who holds the Illini record for the best single-season batting average.
“We hit some hard balls,” Hall said. “It was nice to get one to drop in.”
Gay’s performance was so outstanding that UI coach Terri Sullivan summoned her for the second game of the twin bill, a game where the winner would earn the No. 6 seed for the Big Ten tournament, which starts Thursday in Lincoln, Neb.
The UI career strikeout leader followed her one-hitter with a three-hitter in a 1-0 walkoff win, a victory that was secured when freshman Katie Repole drove in Jessica Davis with the decisive run with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning.
It was the first time this season Gay started both games of a doubleheader.
“It’s fun to have the ball in your hands,” she said. “I felt more tired the first game because I threw more pitches. The second game went faster.”
Four Illini batted in the seventh inning of the nightcap. Each did something to contribute to the final outcome.
Davis took advantage of a second chance, leading off with a single to left field. On the previous pitch, her foul ball fell near the backstop with neither the Ohio State catcher or third baseman being able to make the catch.
“I thought that (next pitch) was a ‘freebie,’ ” Davis said. “I just kept zoning in, taking it pitch by pitch. I had a good at-bat.”
The following batter, Allie Bauch, drew a walk. Jenna Mychko then sacrificed both into scoring position and Repole followed with the winner to left field on a two-strike delivery.
“As I was running to first, Coach (Donna) DiBiase said, ‘make sure you touch the base,’ ” said Repole, who enjoyed batting in that pressure position. “If you’re a competitor, you like it. That’s what you play the game for.”
After her showing Sunday, Gay has pitched 172/3 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run.
“Ohio State is near the top of the conference in many (offensive) categories,” Sullivan said, “but they couldn’t quite figure her out.”
In particular, Hall said, “Pepper did a great job getting the ball in on the hands (of Ohio State hitters).”
Hall’s Illini career ended in 2006, but she remained on campus for a year, helping with the softball program.
“I majored in history, thinking I’d go into teaching and coaching,” Hall said. “I had the fifth year and worked with the team. That was when I fell in love with working with the girls.”
Hall played softball professionally for three seasons, saying, “the experience was awesome and I loved every second, but I had to get a job.”
Hall’s professional experience influenced the jobs she sought.
“Spending time with people so passionate about softball helped me realize I wanted to stay at the elite level,” she said.
She spent five years at Ohio University, serving as assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. Last summer, she became the third first-year coach on the Buckeyes’ staff. On Saturday, she got to experience her first UI softball Tailgate since graduating, and proudly walked around in her Ohio State colors.
“Some of the alumni heckled me, but I expected that,” she said. “It’s weird being back here.”
Hall believes she has found her calling as a college coach.
“It’s a chance to be involved in the game on a daily basis,” she said. “The 18- to 22-year-olds are an impressionable group. To give the passion back to the kids, and have a positive impact, I feel blessed. I love it.”
Hall is content with her role as hitting instructor. “It’s nice to have one focus,” she said.
Someday, however, she’d like to coach in a different capacity. If the opportunity to become a head coach came along, it would fulfill another of her dreams.
One destination would be near the top of her list: her collegiate alma mater.
“Maybe if Terri decides to give it up, I could try to come back here,” Hall said. “If Donna (14th-year Illini assistant) doesn’t want it, maybe I could be next in line.”
Looking to her future was one factor why she put Ohio University in her past.
“I wasn’t looking to leave,” Hall said, “but one reason I took this job is you need to grow. It has been a great transition.”
Despite being outhit 5-1 in the opener, Ohio State won the game by a shutout. In the fourth inning, when Gay issued three walks, three runs scored on infield throwing errors. The first errant toss was made by Gay.
Before the opener ended, Hall added to her list of Eichelberger highlights. In the sixth inning, Ohio State’s Caitlin Conrad forced Gay to throw 24 pitches before being retired on a popup to Davis at shortstop. Conrad fouled off 17 consecutive pitches.
“I’ve seen in the mid-teens,” Hall said. “Twenty four is pretty intense. I wish I had the highlights to send to SportsCenter.”
After throwing 192 pitches in the first game — one day after her 22nd birthday — Gay started the second game with 32/3 perfect innings before issuing a walk and yielding a single to back-to-back Buckeyes.
She didn’t mind the workload in her home finale.
“I feel so honored to wear the Orange and Blue,” Gay said.
Illini notebook. Freshman Remeny Perez was 3 for 3 in the opener and reached base the first two times she batted in the nightcap with walks. ... In a 48-hour period, starting at 6 p.m. on Friday, Gay threw three complete games and totaled 460 pitches. In 21 innings, she allowed 10 hits. ... The UI’s third-longest winning streak (10 games) was snapped by Ohio State in the first game when the Illini were shut out for the ninth time. Gay’s second-game shutout was the team’s fifth this year. ... Freshman leadoff hitter Kylie Johnson was 3 for 3 in Game 2. ... Illinois has played nine consecutive games that have lasted at least 2 hours. For the season, 30 of 48 games for the 22-26 team have required at least 2 hours. ... Five seniors bid adieu to Eichelberger Field. Others besides Davis and Gay were Stephanie Cuevas, Linnea Detrick and Jackie Guy.