U.S. softball on a roll at junior worlds
American expatriates the world over know the drill. When you spend a quintessentially red, white and blue holiday like the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving in another country, finding the familiar trappings can pose a challenge.
So it was that at least a few members of the United States junior national softball team planned to make the 80-mile trip from their base in Brampton, Ontario, to Niagara Falls on Thursday to watch a fireworks display. If it turned out to be half as explosive as the show the Americans themselves put on in the first four days of the ISF Junior Women's World Championships, it would be well worth the miles -- or kilometers.
Team USA wrapped up preliminary-round play in the tournament with a pair of easy wins Thursday, 10-0 against South Korea and 7-0 against New Zealand. The lopsided results were more of the same for a team that finished first in its pool and won all six games it played by a combined score of 59-0. (A seventh win came by forfeit when Venezuela was unable to secure the necessary visas to travel to Canada.) Only once did the United States even need to play all seven innings, a 4-0 win against Canada being the only instance in which it didn't win by run rule.
American pitchers gave up six hits in six games. American hitters totaled nine home runs, six triples and 15 doubles.
Those weren't measly Roman candles coming off their bats.
"I think we're seeing the ball well, swinging at good pitches and then making adjustments to any strike zones we've seen so far. And our pitchers are doing a great job of attacking the zone," Team USA coach Tairia Flowers said after wins against Canada, the Czech Republic, Great Britain, New Zealand, Puerto Rico and South Korea. "The biggest pleasant surprise is when you start scoring quite a few runs, and our pitchers are holding the other team, it's easy to get distracted or to not be engaged in the game. The girls are doing such a great job of still working on things later on in the innings."
The medal round begins Friday evening for the United States against Australia. The clearest path to a championship is to win that game, then Saturday against an opponent likely to be Japan, and finally Sunday in what may be a rematch. As in 2011, when the United States lost 9-0 against Japan in the medal round and still rallied through the losers bracket to win a rematch in the final, it isn't the only path. But expect any route to go through Japan.
First contested in 1981 and traditionally held every four years until this year, when it entered a two-year cycle, the junior event has been more competitive than the senior-level world championship. The United States won the two most recent junior titles, in South Africa two years ago and the Netherlands in 2007, but those results only pulled it level with Japan with four junior championships overall. In fact, those two countries played for the title in each of the past six tournaments, with the margin of victory in any meeting never more than three runs and the wins split evenly.
Another chapter in the rivalry may await.
Entering its final pool-play game Thursday night against overmatched Singapore, Japan had been almost as dominant as the United States. It outscored its first six opponents by a 49-3 margin and did so in what was arguably the more difficult of the two groups, beating Australia, China, Holland and a surprisingly potent Brazil. Japan is the reigning champion in the Olympics (any defense on perhaps permanent hold with the sport no longer part of the program) and in the senior world championship. A win in Brampton would give it possession of every major international title.
Even for an American team in an under-19 tournament, that history carries weight. Flowers won a gold medal with the United States in the 2004 Olympics, but she also experienced championship disappointment against Japan in the finals of both the 1999 junior world championship and 2008 Olympics. Team USA assistant coach Laura Berg won three Olympic gold medals but shared that 2008 silver-tinged disappointment.
"They all know and have stressed to us the huge rivalry that the United States and Japan have with each other," Team USA outfielder Haylie McCleney said of the coaching staff. "Just from being at the top, they're the top two international programs."
The American lineup follows a familiar model for the national program: multi-threat speed at the top of the order, disciplined power in the middle and the luxury of no weak links through the bottom of the order. (The team's leadoff hitter, McCleney, is nonetheless tied for sixth in the entire tournament field in RBIs.) But the star of the show to this point is third baseman and cleanup hitter Mysha Sataraka.
Sataraka had a productive freshman season at UCLA. She ranked fourth in slugging percentage among the Bruins and came up big when it arguably mattered most to Bruins fans with two home runs and six RBIs in a series win at archrival Arizona. She also missed nearly a third of the season with a thumb injury, and in the end, she didn't make the same splash in the college game as freshman stars like Missouri's Emily Crane, Alabama's McCleney, Michigan's Sierra Romero or Florida's Kelsey Stewart, who also combined for 29 hits and 22 RBIs for Team USA in pool play.
But it's Sataraka who leads the tournament with three home runs and 15 RBIs, the latter total nearly twice as many as any other player has.
"Her personality in general is very laid-back, so that took us a little bit of finding out what got her going," Flowers said. "She doesn't really seem very excited, but she plays the game at a high level. She has fun with it. She doesn't take herself too seriously, and I love that."
Now the tournament really begins. Opposing pitchers like Japan's Kana Nakano and Australia's Amelia Cudicio will make runs harder to come by. And outside of Cheridan Hawkins, who was every bit as good in pool play as she was in the college season at Oregon, the American pitching staff is something of an unknown commodity. This isn't a team that has weathered much adversity together because it hasn't spent much time together, period; the week and a half it got before traveling to Canada was extent of its history.
"We spent pretty much every second together for 10 straight days, so you get to know each other quick," McCleney said. "We had two-a-days at practices, so we were playing ball the whole time. We just meshed really well together. There's no problems on the team. Everybody knows what their job is, everybody knows their role. It came together quickly."
The weekend will reveal whether it was quickly enough to win a world championship.