University Park, Pa. (UI Release) – The Fighting Illini opened the final regular-season series strong with a 5-0 victory at Penn State. Three Illini went deep, and Alex Booker plated the first run with an RBI triple to back a 5-hit shutout by freshman Brandi Needham. The win moves the Illini (21-25) into a tie with Penn State (14-32) for ninth place in the conference at 5-16 each.
Booker got the Illini offense going in the third, ripping her fourth triple of the season to drive home Kylie Johnson, who was 1-for-4 on the day. The senior moves into a tie with Danielle Vaji (2011) and Erin Jones (2003) for third all-time in single-season triples, as well as tying Molly Lawhead ’04 for seventh with five for her career.
“Adjusting,” replied Booker, when asked the key to her team’s success. “When people got fooled, they came back later in the game and I think everybody contributed offensively. If someone wasn’t contributing in one way, they turned it around by the end of the game.”
Jess Perkins tripled the Illini lead with a two-run home run in the fourth, knocking in her 14th career long ball to tie with Assistant Coach Katie O’Connell for 15th in Illinois history. Allie Bauch and Ruby Rivera drove in some insurance in the seventh, with a solo shot each. Brittany Sanchez singled and scored, Remeny Perez went 2-for-3, and Jade Vecvanags was 1-for-3. Only Jenna Mychko was rendered hitless, but she laid down her 11th career sacrifice bunt in the fourth.
“Perkins came through clutch with the home run to put us up even more,” said Needham. “And then it was really just making adjustments at the plate. The first time through the order, (Laubach) was keeping our balance off and we weren’t really hitting her very hard, but then we had balls start to drop through and we got the momentum going.”
Needham (15-14) fed off that momentum in the circle, allowing just five hits and a hit batter while striking out a pair to capture her fourth career complete-game shutout.
“Brandi can always toss a shutout, let’s be real here,” Booker touted of her teammate. “All the ground ball outs, you couldn’t ask for more from a first-year pitcher. We trust her pitching; we trust that she’s going to keep it inside the park, and we’ll defend it. We’re not going to let them take extra bases. We did make errors, but at the same time, we’re going to pick up our defense; we will pick each other up.”
A highlight of the Illini defense was its ability to convert ground balls into double plays, as the Orange and Blue tied the school record for the second time this year by turning three in the game, including a key 1-2-3 double play which got Needham out of really the only jam of the night. Perez, who leads the Big Ten with 20 double plays turned this season, was a part of all three, making her the ninth Illini to record three double plays in a single game and the third this season.
Additionally, the Illini entered tonight’s game having tied the all-time single-season record, as they on to set the new record at 30 on the year with a minimum of three games left to play.
The five Penn State hits were scattered among five Nittany Lions, with Macy Jones tabbing the lone extra-baser on a triple in the bottom of the seventh.
Marlaina Laubach (9-16) went the distance in the circle, allowing five runs on nine hits and two walks with six strikeouts.
“They stuck the course of the game and didn’t let one thing affect them,” said O’Connell. “Brandi kept throwing her stuff, and Mychko led behind the plate. Kylie, I thought, did a good job of getting on, and then Booker stepped up to drive in our first run and that really set the tone. Defensively, we made a couple blunders, but they set themselves up for the double play.”
Illinois started the scoring in the top of the third, as Bauch drew a one-out walk, and after Johnson replaced her on first in a fielder’s choice, Booker ripped an RBI triple to the wall in right center to make it 1-0 Illini.
Sanchez led off the top of the fourth with a single to right, and Perkins crushed a ball well out of the ballpark to drive in a pair of Illini runs.
Penn State threatened in the bottom of the fourth, loading the bases with one out on a single, an error and a fielder’s choice, but Needham turned a comebacker into a 1-2-3 double play to finish out the inning.
“I’m really not worried if I’ve got a team hitting the ball on the ground, because I trust our defense,” said Needham. “We’ve had so many double plays that I know we’re going to get out of it.”
Bauch gave the Illini some insurance in the bottom of the seventh, leading off the final frame with a solo shot to left center. Rivera came up to the plate with two outs and took Bauch’s lead, drilling a nearly identical solo blast to extend her reached base streak to 13 games and give Illinois a five-run lead heading into the bottom of the seventh.
Jones led off the seventh with a deep fly ball to the base of the wall in right center. Sanchez and Johnson nearly collided on the play and struggled to get the ball back in, but as Jones rounded third, Sanchez tossed to Bauch in shallow center who fired a perfect strike to Mychko, who made the stop at the plate and kept Penn State off the board. Needham snagged a comeback liner for the second out and sealed up her fourth shutout of the season with a flyout to left at a final score of 5-0.
Next Up: Illinois and Penn State are back in action on Saturday, May 3, for game two of the three-game series. The game will be streamed live on the Big Ten Digital Network with first pitch set for 3 p.m.