Team USA tops Japan, goes for softball gold
Add another chapter to the best rivalry in international sports that won't have an opportunity to be renewed in London.
And make room for Lauren Gibson in the cast of leading characters when it comes to the United States and Japan in softball.
With Gibson, the All-American second baseman from the University of Tennessee, providing key hits early and late against Yukiko Ueno, the United States beat Japan 3-1 in eight innings to advance to the gold medal game in the ISF World Championship.
Seeking an eighth consecutive world championship title, and 10th title overall, Team USA will face either of Japan, Canada or Australia for the gold medal, the latter two teams playing Saturday night in Whitehorse, Yukon to determine an opponent for Japan in the elimination game that precedes Sunday's final.
A day after beating Canadian ace and international veteran Danielle Lawrie in her home country, the United States faced an equally daunting challenge against Ueno, who threw the final pitch in Olympic softball history when she beat an entirely different and vastly more experienced American roster in the gold medal game in Beijing four years ago.
Having drawn Japan's toughest pitching assignments to this point in the tournament in Whitehorse, Ueno nonetheless entered Saturday's game with a 4-0 record and 0.68 ERA, including a 10-inning no-hitter against Chinese Taipei.
Still one of the hardest throwers in the sport as she approached her 30th birthday, Ueno has long been the gold standard for non-American pitchers in international softball.
How long? When Ueno won a bronze medal with Japan in the 2004 Olympics, Gibson was preparing to enter eighth grade. Jackie Traina, who drew the starting assignment for Team USA opposite Ueno in the circle, was entering seventh grade. Several players for Team USA hadn't even played a college game when the Japanese ace led her team to surprising Olympic gold four years ago.
When Gibson faced Ueno in the Canadian Open last summer, the American international rookie managed a single and a walk in their first meeting but struck out twice in a loss in that event's championship game. Apparently not put off by that memory or the magnitude of the surroundings on this day, Gibson hit the first pitch she saw in the top of the first inning over the fence in center for her fourth home run of the tournament and a 1-0 lead.
Ueno went on to retire 15 of the next 16 batters she faced, routinely getting ahead in the count and forcing hitters into defensive two-strike swings that produced few balls that left the infield and no scoring opportunities. But the quick strike in the first inning gave a young Team USA the cushion of not having to play from behind, even after Yukiyo Mine's RBI single in the third tied the game 1-1.
Chelsea Thomas, who came on in relief of Traina with runners on first and second and one out in the third inning and managed to get out of the inning with just the lone run scoring on Mine's hit, wasn't as dominant as Ueno but kept Japan quiet as the game settled into a race to extra innings.
With American runner Molly Johnson placed on second base to start the top of the eighth, per international rules for extra innings, Christi Orgeron twice failed to get down a sacrifice bunt to move the runner to third but then lined a two-strike double to the fence to score Johnson and give her team a 2-1 lead. Two batters and two outs later, Gibson lined a double to drive home Orgeron and provide an important insurance run.
Choosing not to play small ball with the deficit at two runs instead of one, Japan went in order against Keilani Ricketts in the bottom of the eighth and stranded its runner.
Even automatic passage to the championship game doesn't guarantee anything for Team USA, as Ueno knows better than almost anyone. Four years ago, she cemented her status as a softball legend by leading Japan back from an early medal-round loss against the United States to win the gold.
But six years ago, she was on the other end, outdueled by Cat Osterman in a world championship final after she had beaten the United States a day earlier to put her team in the same position this American team is in now.
Still, needing one win against the likes of Lawrie or Ueno, likely minutes after they pitched at least some portion of another game, is a far more promising scenario than needing to beat both of them in the same afternoon.
That the United States has already clinched silver suggests this group of unfamiliar names proved itself worthy of its uniforms. One win or one loss Sunday won't change that. But it will determine a champion.