U.S. pitchers leave fielders idle


ATHENS, Greece -- The U.S. baseball team didn't qualify for the Olympics and the men's basketball team might have gotten whipped by Puerto Rico. But never fear. We still rule the world in softball.

The U.S. didn't allow a run during the seven-game round-robin tournament, extended its winning streak to 77 games and guaranteed itself the bronze heading into Sunday's semifinal game against Australia. Japan -- which pitched a perfect game Friday -- and China play in Sunday's other semifinal game, with the winner playing the loser of the Australia-U.S. game.

The Aussies and pitcher Tanya Harding (no, not the one you're thinking of) are the U.S. team's biggest rival. Not that there really is a team that rivals this one. America outscored its opponents 41-0 during the round robin, winning by the mercy rule four times. U.S pitchers struck out 51 batters and allowed 11 hits in 42 innings.

Forget about the Mendoza Line -- opponents batted less than .100 against the U.S.

"When someone gets on first base, we take it personally,'' said pitcher Lisa Fernandez, a three-time Olympian. "Our mission is to not let anyone touch first base and not let anyone touch home plate. We're going to do anything in our power to prevent that from happening. It doesn't matter whether we have a three-run lead or a five-run lead, we're protecting home. That's ours.''

Fernandez and her fellow starting pitchers Jennie Finch, Cat Osterman and Lori Harrigan are the best foursome since Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles. "We are so excited our pitching rotation is on our side,'' first baseman Leah O'Brien-Amico said. "The other teams want the challenge of facing them but mentally, they know how hard it is.''

No kidding. Finch struck out Mike Cameron during an exhibition. If she can strike out major leaguers, what chance do the poor Greeks have?

When you play the U.S., you better bring your wallet because you're going to be a lot of beer after all those strikeouts. As Fernandez said, "You may have a Cat Osterman strike out 14 batters in a game but we still have to worry about those other seven.''

Sheesh, didn't these guys ever see "Bull Durham'' where Crash tells Nuke LaLoosh that strikeouts are fascist and that he should throw more
groundballs so the fielders can participate, too?

"We say we still have to make the plays but we don't get a lot of chances,'' O'Brien-Amico said. "I'm really just hanging around a lot at first base. But I used to play outfield and it's definitely more fun in the infield. At least when they bunt, we can make some plays.''

Not that there aren't some challenges. When opponents do get a runner on base, O'Brien-Amico says she works on picking them off.

While the U.S. pitchers are shutting everyone out, the lineup is providing more than enough offense. Fernandez is batting a team-high .556 with seven RBIs while third baseman Crystl Bustos has three home runs. "We have girls who hit the ball over the fence and we have girls who can bunt,'' O'Brien-Amico said. "It's a well-rounded offense.''

Actually, there were some tense moments for the U.S. during the round-robin. Japan took the U.S. into extra innings before the U.S. won with three runs in the eighth. And Taiwan loaded the bases one inning Friday. And ^ well, there was that one day when the U.S. team couldn't decide whether to go to TGIFriday's or Applebee's after the game.

The U.S. team prepared for the Olympics by training with Navy SEALs last winter. Which seems about as necessary as Bill Gates searching behind the sofa cushions for loose change. But hey, after the way the basketball and baseball programs have struggled recently, the U.S. is determined to maintain its softball dominance.

"The world is catching up,'' Finch said. "Softball is growing around the world and you're seeing that parity.''

It's true. Why, those Italians don't have Chico's Bail Bonds on the back of their jerseys anymore.