IU softball wrapped up its regular season schedule this past weekend with as much at stake as any series it has played this season.
A series sweep would’ve likely put the Hoosiers on the brink of their first NCAA Tournament berth in years, but a single loss might have ended their postseason hopes entirely.
With a 33-19 overall record and sitting in seventh place in the Big Ten standings, IU traveled to University Park, Pennsylvania, to face Penn State in a pivotal three-game series.
Game one Friday evening started off quiet and eventful, as both teams relied on solid pitching and quality defense to keep the contest scoreless through the first four innings. In the top of the fifth inning with IU up to bat, play was suspended due to severe weather, setting up for a doubleheader Saturday afternoon.
The slight break in action was what IU needed to find its offensive firepower and break open the scoring.
IU scored its first run in the sixth inning. A bunt single from sophomore outfielder Taylor Lambert, followed by three consecutive walks, pushed across the first run of the game. One batter later, sophomore infielder Annika Baez added to IU’s lead with a run-scoring single up the middle.
Down to its final two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, Penn State threatened to tie the game with two runners aboard, but IU senior pitcher Tara Trainer put the final touches on a 2-0 victory.
Trainer was dominant in the circle, striking out nine batters en route to her fifth complete game shutout of the season.
After an hour-and-a-half break, both teams took the field again to play game two. This time, the Hoosier offense jumped out to an early lead and never looked back.
IU junior outfielder Gabbi Jenkins got the action started with a one-out single, allowing for sophomore utility player Maddie Westmoreland to smack her eighth home run of the season and giving IU a 2-0 advantage after one inning.
The Hoosiers tacked on three more runs in the second and third inning thanks to a run-scoring single from Lambert and a two-run home run from sophomore infielder Grayson Radcliffe, leading the team with her ninth home run of the season.
Trailing by five runs, the Nittany Lions mounted two different comeback attempts, but the Hoosiers' pitching trio of junior Emily Goodin, freshman Natalie Foor and Trainer slammed the door shut, eventually giving IU a series-clinching 5-2 win.
“Tara was really sharp in both games, especially with that complete game shutout in game one," IU Head Coach Shonda Stanton said. "She kept us in a position to win. Game two, it was nice to get out to the early lead and great to see Maddie and Grayson go yard.”
A rainy, overcast Sunday afternoon presented IU a chance to wrap up a crucial sweep of Penn State and maintain its status as an NCAA Tournament team. Unlike the previous two games, however, IU’s offense failed to put together any sustained momentum.
All of the run scoring came in the fourth inning when the Nittany Lions took advantage of inconsistent Hoosier pitching and fielding.
After cruising through the first three innings, Trainer walked the bases loaded in the fourth inning and gave up the first run via another walk, spelling the end of the senior’s day. It looked as if IU would get out of the inning relatively unscathed, but a defensive error by Radcliffe allowed another run to score.
Penn State’s Bailey Parshall threw a great game, limiting IU to just three hits and one walk while striking out six on her way to defeating IU 2-0 and salvaging game three.
With the series victory, IU improves to 35-20 overall and 10-13 in conference play.
But now after failing to secure a much-needed series sweep, the Hoosiers are at the mercy of the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
It’s very likely now that IU must win at least two games in the Big Ten tournament, if not the entire tournament, if it wants a spot in the postseason.
The Big Ten Tournament kicks off Thursday afternoon in Bloomington, though the matchups have yet to be determined.
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