Finch allows no hits, Ks 5 in 3 innings
ATHENS, Greece -- A calm came over U.S. softball coach Mike Candrea as he stepped into the dugout for his first Olympic game. He knew he'd done the right thing by coming.
His wife was gone, but at least this part of his life was still whole.
Less than one month after his wife's death from a brain aneurysm, Candrea guided the U.S. softball team to a 7-0 victory over Italy on Saturday in a shortened opener of the eight-team tournament.
Jennie Finch didn't allow a hit in three innings, Natasha Watley went 4-for-4 with two RBIs, and the Americans began their run toward a third straight gold medal with an impressive display of speed and power.
Watley's two-run double capped a three-run fifth inning that put the United States up by seven runs, invoking the mercy rule that ended the game.
Candrea almost wished it hadn't.
Being back on the field in the heat of a game provided him with a much needed diversion. It was small things -- filling out the lineup card, flashing signals to hitters and waving runners around third -- that gave him temporary peace.
"It feels great,'' he said. "This morning I was anxious to get up and get to the ballpark. It seems like we've been practicing for two years. The last two weeks have just gone real slow for me.''
Jessica Mendoza had two RBIs, and three-time Olympian Lisa Fernandez drove in another run as the U.S. team extended its winning streak to 71 since July 2003. The Americans are now 8-0 against Italy since 1974.
Finch, who has received more pre-Olympic publicity than her teammates because of her stunning looks, struck out five of the 10 batters she faced before being pulled by Candrea.
By then the Americans led 4-0, and the lead allowed Finch to get some rest on a draining 95-degree afternoon. Candrea also was able to get some work for pitchers Lori Harrigan and Cat Osterman, who shut out Italy over the final two innings.
The U.S. has posted 11 shutouts in 20 games since softball joined the games in 1996. On Sunday, the Americans will play Australia, considered the biggest obstacle to the United States winning another gold.
The Aussies beat Japan 4-2 in the tourney opener as Tanya Harding pitched 6 1-3 innings of shutout relief.
The strong start was important for an American team featuring nine first-time Olympians. And the U.S. rookies came through as Watley, Mendoza and Kelly Kretschmann went a combined 8-for-9 with five RBIs.
The speedy Watley, a former standout at UCLA, beat out infield singles her first two times up. Then, with Italy's outfielders playing shallow, she hit triples over their heads in her last two at-bats.
"That's what I've been working on,'' Watley said, "my power game.''
Under a scorching sun and the spotlight that comes with her new celebrity, Finch was impressive. She fanned four of the first five Italian hitters, who couldn't catch up with her 70 mph fastball or nasty drop pitch.
"I was a little nervous,'' admitted Finch, who along with her teammates skipped Friday's opening ceremony to rest for Italy. "It's nice to get it under our belts.''
Italy didn't have a hit until the fourth, when Marta Gambella singled on Harrigan's first pitch. Italy got runners to second and third with one out in the fifth, but Osterman came on and struck out the next two batters.
"It was nice to be able to get in there and get out the jitters,'' said Osterman, who got a thrill before the game when she and her teammates were greeted at the stadium by former President Bush.
"He wanted to know who the University of Texas girl was,'' Osterman said. "That put a smile on my face.''
After several emotional weeks, it was also important for the U.S. team to lift Candrea.
As a tribute to Sue Candrea, who passed away while traveling with them, the Americans have "SC'' stickers on their batting helmets. Some players are wearing wristbands with her initials.
Because she played for Candrea at Arizona, Finch is closer to her coach than many of her teammates. She often credits him with making her a better player, better pitcher and better person.
Although she might not be able to understand his pain, Finch knows softball can help ease it for a few hours.
"We wanted coach out there,'' she said. "We all know Sue would have wanted him in that third-base box coaching us.''
Tanya Harding bailed out Australia by pitching 6 1-3 innings of no-hit relief and Natalie Titcume hit a two-run homer in a win over Japan in the opening game of the Olympic softball tournament.
Harding came off the bench in the first inning to replace starter Brooke Wilkins, who walked five in the first inning to force in two runs for Japan. Harding, a three-time Olympian, then shut down the defending silver medalists the rest of the way, retiring 19 of the 20 batters she faced.
Titcume's two-run shot to center field in the fourth gave the Aussies, bronze medal winners in the 1996 Atlanta Games and 2000 Sydney Games, a 3-2 lead in the fourth inning.
Although she did little to help, Wilkins combined on the fourth combined no-hitter in Olympic play. Harding and Wilkins held Italy without a hit in 2000, and Wilkins combined with Melanie Roche to no-hit Cuba in Sydney.
By using Harding, Australia coach Simon Roskvist will likely start Roche on Sunday against the gold-medal favorite U.S. team.
Japan, which is known for its solid defense, made two errors.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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