'Small ball' carries Team USA past host Canada
It isn't likely to get any easier for the United States on softball's biggest stage. But a young American team should take comfort in the fact that it won't get much more difficult, either.
Facing one of the best pitchers in the world, Danielle Lawrie, on her home soil, the United States came away with a 4-2 win against Canada in the opening game of medal play for each team in the ISF World Championship in Whitehorse, Yukon.
It isn't the biggest win in the history of a national program with 10 world championships and three Olympic gold medals, not by any stretch of the imagination, but it is the most significant result for the current team, one that shares a uniform but not yet a resume with the teams responsible for all that hardware.
A loss against Lawrie and the Canadians would not have eliminated the United States from championship contention in the double-elimination format, but it would have forced the team to play two games Saturday and two more Sunday if it hoped to claim an 11th consecutive world championship. Instead, Team USA advances to face either Japan or China on Saturday night with the winner guaranteed automatic passage to Sunday's championship game.
The United States spent pool play in the tournament held in Canada's far north scoring runs like few teams before it in the red, white and blue. Despite a roster with almost no experience in major tournaments, a group assembled last summer after veterans of the 2008 Olympics and 2010 World Championship left the program, Team USA scored 78 runs in winning all seven games in pool play in Whitehorse, 32 more runs than any other team in the field.
The lineup hit 17 home runs in those seven games, more than any other two teams combined. With five home runs, Amanda Chidester outhit most teams all by herself.
But none of those performance came against a pitcher anything close to the caliber of Lawrie, who joined Canada late after commitments in National Pro Fastpitch but ensured the team's second-place finish behind Japan in Pool B with a dominating shutout against Australia in her only appearance in pool play.
When Lawrie retired six of the first seven batters she faced, relying on a better changeup and sharper movement than the Americans had faced all tournament, it was apparent this wasn't going to be another stat-padding day for the offense.
The bottom of the order put together the first challenge. Ashley Holcombe and Christi Orgeron, the No. 8 and No. 9 hitters, led off the bottom of the third with back-to-back sharp singles. After a sacrifice bunt from Michelle Moultrie moved the runners to second and third, Stacy May Johnson drove in both with another single up the middle, Orgeron scoring on a nice slide around a potential tag. A right-handed hitter who had eight at-bats in the first seven games, albeit with five hits, Orgeron was a somewhat surprising starting selection, but Ken Eriksen's faith in his roster depth paid off.
The test wasn't over. Canada answered in top of the fourth against Keilani Ricketts, with Jenn Salling and Megan Timpf driving in runs to cap a sustained rally. Team USA had allowed just one run in its first seven games.
Lawrie knew what was within reach at that point. Seven years ago, almost to the day, she beat Team USA in the 2005 World Cup of Softball in Oklahoma City. Just 18 at the time and still more than six months shy of her first innings for the University of Washington, Lawrie struck out seven and allowed one earned run in that win against a lineup that included a host of Olympians.
Seven years later, after an appearance of her own in the Olympics, an NCAA championship and two college player-of-the-year awards, she had the advantage of experience. No American player could match that, not on the international stage.
But once again, the United States built a rally from the bottom up. Sam Fischer hit a one-out ground-rule double in the bottom of the fourth, and a walk by Holcombe and single by Orgeron loaded the bases. The top of the order finished it off, with Moultrie's RBI single and May-Johnson's run-scoring groundout extending the lead to 4-2. Chelsea Thomas and Jackie Traina each pitched an inning of relief to close things out.
Team USA posted video-game numbers in getting to the medal round but proved little other than it could hammer bad pitching and avoid letdowns. That's not without value in the international game, especially for a team that did slip up against lesser opponents at times last summer, but it didn't prove this team was ready to win a world championship.
Last year's Pan-Am gold was nice. Wins against Japan in last year's World Cup and this year's Canadian Open were good. But beating Lawrie in Canada with singles, small ball and lineup depth was better.
Now all they have to do is play at the same level Saturday and Sunday, likely against a Japanese team that has beaten this team four times in the past two years.
Hey, nobody said this was going to be easy.