Japan again tops Team USA for title
The United States had home-field advantage in the World Cup of Softball. Japan looked like the team familiar with the stakes in the championship game.
For the second night in a row, Japan was too good for the United States. Behind big hits from Yuki Hayashi and Yuka Ichiguchi, big plays from Mana Atsumi and big innings of relief from Kana Nakano, the Japanese jumped out to an early lead and beat the Americans 6-3 to win the eighth edition of the tournament.
It's the first time the United States failed to win the World Cup of Softball, hosted annually in Oklahoma City, since Japan won the first title in 2005. Added to Saturday's 7-4 loss to Japan, it's also the first time Team USA lost multiple games against the same team in the event.
Here are five takeaways from the action:
1. The road to a title still goes through Japan. Once was an upset. This is becoming a trend. Japan beat the United States for the third final in a row, spanning this event and last summer's Canadian Open and World Championship. Add a recent meeting in the championship game of the Junior World Championship, and it's four celebrations in a row by Japan. Beating the United States in the 2008 Olympics was an upset, and a jaw-dropping one at that. Japan beating the United States these days represents nothing more dramatic than a slight favorite edging out its primary rival.
It's worth pointing out that Japanese ace Yukiko Ueno pitched in only one of the most recent finals, going all 10 innings to win the world title in Canada a year ago. Japan, with Ueno in the circle, is a stronger team, but the pitchers who worked most of the game Sunday were prospects called up from the junior national team that competed a week earlier in Brampton, Ontario. Nor did Japan have the services of outfielder Eri Yamada, who hit .571 in the medal round of last year's world championship but is playing this summer in National Pro Fastpitch. Japan has talent and depth, proven and emerging. And right now, it's more than Ueno. It's the team to beat in international softball.
2. Valerie Arioto, Amanda Chidester, Lauren Gibson and Michelle Moultrie could play in any era. Why would it be nice to have more continuity in the national program? Take a look at the few veterans they do have. All part of the national team for the third summer in a row, Arioto, Gibson and Moultrie have matured into three of the best softball players in the world. Chidester is well on her way to proving the same in her second summer with Team USA. Those four and Rhea Taylor, also in her third year with the team, combined to hit .431 in the tournament. The rest of the team hit .257.
Chidester, who hit five home runs in nine games in last summer's world championship, hit a home run Saturday against Ueno that gave the U.S. at least a chance at a comeback. Gibson hit two home runs, including one in Sunday's final, and beat out at least as many infield hits in five games, the kind of all-around game so important in international play.
Speaking of versatile, Arioto was a standout pitcher at the University of California but strictly a hitter and infielder in her time with the national team. Until Sunday. She delivered at the plate as always but also pitched important innings out of the bullpen when the United States was in trouble early against Puerto Rico.
The financial reality of the sport at the moment leads to roster turnover. But there are still players on Team USA who could wear the uniform in any era. That's something to build around.
3. Yes, Team USA missed Keilani Ricketts. Pitching is an issue for Team USA. It's an issue that may resolve itself with time and innings, but a question mark going in with an all-rookie staff remains a question mark coming out of Oklahoma City. American pitchers shut out Australia, Canada and Puerto Rico in pool play, but it was a tough debut for Aimee Creger, Cheridan Hawkins, Jessica Moore and Sara Nevins.
Minus Arioto's impressive fill-in performance (and it will be very interesting to see how coach Ken Eriksen uses her the rest of the summer), the four players expected to handle the ball for the United States combined to allow 29 hits and 10 walks in 28 1/3 innings. Japan was responsible for most of that damage, but not all of it. By comparison, Team USA allowed 18 hits and five walks in 25 innings in the medal round of last year's world championship.
Team USA historically had the luxury of pitchers who could win games and tournaments on their own, even if they rarely needed to. There was always a Lisa Fernandez, Michele Granger, Jennie Finch, Monica Abbott or Cat Osterman, and usually more than one. That's not the situation at the moment. Moore and Nevins had impressive stretches. Hawkins was going on short notice as a roster replacement and coming off a big workload in the previous week's junior tournament.
But it's impossible to look at those five games and not bring up the absence of Ricketts, whose divorce from the program was the big headline entering the event.
Without her, it's a staff without a traditional American ace for now.
4. Keep the losses in perspective. The World Cup represents two weeks in what will be more than yearlong process for Team USA as it builds toward next summer's world championship. This team had three days at a selection camp in June, a week or so of practice before the tournament and four days of games against top international competition.
Playing in front of the home crowd, at least her second home as a star at the University of Oklahoma, Lauren Chamberlain struggled with four strikeouts in eight at-bats. That isn't going to last for one of the most talented young hitters in the world. Raven Chavanne ran into a costly out in Saturday's loss against Japan. One of the world's fastest players is going to learn to pick her spots to try to take an extra base. Amber Freeman, who hit a pair of home runs against Puerto Rico but turned an ankle in the game, will get more at-bats. So will the rest of the rookies.
Shortstop Kourtney Salvarola had perhaps the most impressive debut weeks among the rookies, getting two hits in the final and five hits in eight at-bats for the tournament. There is more of that in this group.
This was a rough start, but it was just a start. If the mistakes are still happening in August, then worry. Which brings us to
5. More softball awaits. Yes, it's supposedly a quiet year in the two-year world championship cycle. And yes, the biggest softball news will come after Team USA disperses, when the International Olympic Committee votes in September on which sport to add to the Olympic program in 2020. But the next few weeks will be eventful.
Some like to bill the World Cup of Softball as more than it is, but while it has an edge in television cameras, it is no more major when it comes to competitiveness than the Canadian Open, another annual tournament. Play in the international division of that event begins Tuesday. Come Wednesday, the United States and Japan will be back in opposite dugouts to play again, with another potential meeting awaiting in the tournament final on July 22.
Then comes the Pan-Am qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico in August, a tournament in which Team USA won't have to worry about Japan but in which it will play with the pressure of qualification for the World Championship.