Japan defeats US for softball gold again, 13 years later


By James Wagner


After a 13-year wait, of course it came down to this: the world’s softball powers, the United States and Japan, facing off for the gold medal Tuesday. The last time the sport and these teams were in this position, Japan and Yukiko Ueno stunned the previously invincible United States and its stars Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott.


Given the chance to avenge that defeat, the top-ranked United States lost to its rival again.


Pitching in her third Olympics, Ueno, 39, vexed the United States once more. And with a few well-placed hits and a lucky bounce, Japan defeated the United States, 2-0, at Yokohama Baseball Stadium.


The loss was the only one suffered by the U.S. team at the Tokyo Games, where softball, dropped from the permanent Olympics program more than a decade ago, was returning for the first time since 2008.


On Monday, Japan rested Ueno and lost to the United States in the teams’ final game of round-robin play, a contest that essentially did not matter: Both teams were by far the best of the tournament, and they had already claimed spots in the gold medal game. A day later, with its best pitcher on the mound, Japan won with six scoreless innings from Ueno.


The game was the final Olympic appearance for Osterman, 38, and Abbott, 35, two veterans who also lost to Ueno and Japan in the 2008 final.


At the time, the United States had never failed to win an Olympic gold medal in softball, dating to the sport’s introduction at the Games in 1996. So when the sport returned to the Tokyo Games, there was little doubt that the United States and Japan would arrive back at this very position again, for the third time in Olympic softball history, fighting for the top prize.


Osterman, who entered Tuesday without having allowed a run in nearly 13 innings this tournament, started the game for the United States. She coughed up an infield single in the first inning — a comebacker she couldn’t field cleanly — and a double in the second. But she escaped without any damage, getting help from right fielder Michelle Moultrie and her running catch at the wall to end the second.


When Osterman walked Mana Atsumi to lead off the third inning, U.S. coach Ken Erickson emerged from the dugout to bring in Ally Carda. After allowing another base runner, Carda pitched out of trouble.


An inning later, though, Japan capitalized. Yamato Fujita singled, moved to second base on a sacrifice bunt and then advanced to third on a groundout. She gave Japan a 1-0 lead when Atsumi chopped a ground ball and slid headfirst into first base to beat the throw.


Japan doubled its lead in the fifth inning, on a run-scoring single by Fujita after Abbott had entered the game in relief, and given the way Ueno was pitching, two runs felt like enough. At first base, Fujita pumped her first while the Japan dugout bounced in delight.


When Ueno surrendered a single to lead off the sixth inning, Miu Goto came on in relief and used a fortuitous ricochet to erase a threat by the United States. With runners on first and second, Amanda Chidester lined a ball at Japan’s third baseman, Yu Yamamoto. It bounced off her left wrist and directly to the shortstop Atsumi, who then flipped the ball to second to complete the double play. Her mouth agape, Chidester stared in disbelief.


An inning later, Ueno returned to the mound to complete her work, once again stunning the United States.


Earlier in the day, Canada sneaked by Mexico, 3-2, to win the bronze medal, its first medal in Olympic softball.