Trainer pitching IU softball to top of Big Ten

Tara Trainer is no stranger to no-hitters.

Before holding Penn State hitless in Sunday’s drubbing at Andy Mohr Field, Trainer authored Indiana’s first no-hitter since 2013 when she blanked Evansville as a freshman two years ago. Prior to that, the right-hander tossed six no-hitters and three perfect games as a high school senior in Lebanon, Ohio.

For Indiana, Trainer has been just what the Hoosiers have needed.

The junior has served as IU’s ace since she arrived in 2016, and this year, with the Hoosiers challenging for a Big Ten title, Trainer has taken the next step as a pitcher.

She’s cut down on walks and boosted her strikeouts, keeping Big Ten batters guessing with a four-pitch repertoire that’s helped the Hoosiers establish themselves as the league’s up-and-comers.

“Each year has prepared me more and more,” Trainer said. “I’ve just worked on my pitches and perfected what I want to do with them.”

In 156 1/3 innings this season, Trainer has notched 184 strikeouts and pitched to a personal best 2.42 ERA, while walking 87 and holding batters to a .187 average. That’s after pitching to a 3.17 ERA, striking out 173 and walking 111 in 174 2/3 innings last season.

As strong as Trainer has been all season in the circle, she’s been at her best in conference play.

Against Big Ten competition, Trainer has worked to an 11-2 record with a 1.02 ERA and 89 strikeouts, while walking 33 in 75 2/3 innings.

“It’s called fastpitch for a reason,” first-year IU coach Shonda Stanton said. “You have to be strong in the circle. We knew coming in, just looking at the stat sheet, she was averaging a strikeout an inning, (almost) a walk an inning. We knew if she could get greater control and eliminate those free passes, and if we played stronger defensively behind her that we could see success. That’s what we’re seeing.”

Trainer earned Co-Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honors after her no-hit outing on Sunday, when she struck out six and walked just two as the Hoosiers run-ruled the Nittany Lions, 10-0, in five innings.

For IU, it was the program’s first no-hitter in a Big Ten game since Sara Olson held Ohio State hitless on April 8, 2009.

“It was pretty exciting,” Trainer said. “My defense played really well behind me and I was just trying to throw good pitches to get the game over.”

Trainer has thrown her share of quality pitches this season. Her 184 strikeouts rank third in the Big Ten, while her 540 career strikeouts already place her fifth in IU program history.

While her approach to picking apart hitters is admirable, it’s her stuff that catches the eye. With her assortment of rise balls, changeups, drop curves and screwballs, Trainer has illustrated her ability to attack up, in and at different speeds.

“When her changeup’s on, she’s extremely effective,” Stanton said. “It’s that ability to go in and up. That’s what’s made her really effective.”

So, too, have the arms around her.

Although Trainer is the ace of IU’s staff, she hasn’t been needed to carry the load all on her own. Sophomore Emily Goodin’s emergence as a strong second option has made the Hoosiers more than one-dimensional in the circle.

That will help this weekend, when second-place Indiana (23-25, 15-2) hosts first-place Michigan (38-7, 13-1) in Bloomington.

With the Big Ten regular season title up for grabs, it’s a crucial series to both teams.

And with the stakes so high, the Hoosiers know who they’ll turn to.

“I want Tara to go out and relax and pound the zone,” Stanton said. “It’s easy for me to say, but I think it’s a situation where we can be that team that we are at Andy Mohr Field, a beautiful facility, with what should be a great crowd. We’ve got an ace in the circle (and) if we play well, she works ahead, we eliminate our freebies and minimize the big inning, it’s gonna be a fun weekend.”