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Fernandez leads way against Australia

8/20/2004

ATHENS, Greece -- When the Olympic softball schedule was
released, Lisa Fernandez grabbed a marker and began counting down
the days.

"This game is always on my calendar," she said. "I have a
tremendous history with Australia."

And until Sunday, mostly a haunting one.

Fernandez allowed one disputed hit and the Americans dominated
their old Olympic nemesis, blowing out the Aussies 10-0 Sunday in a
game called after five innings because the United States was too
far ahead.

The win pushed the U.S. team's Olympic record to 17-4, but two
of the losses came against Australia. Both times, Fernandez was the
losing pitcher after giving up walk-off home runs in extra innings.

But after getting the final out in the fifth Sunday, Fernandez
pumped her first, picked up her resin bag and headed to the dugout
with her head held high.

International rules state a game ends whenever a team trails by
seven runs or more after five innings -- the so-called slaughter
rule. This one certainly qualified.

"They got us a good one today, mate," said Australian coach
Simon Roskvist, who isn't about to concede a third straight gold
medal to the U.S. "But that will do nothing but wake us up. We're
not throwing in the towel."

The Aussies (1-1) had no choice after the Americans scored eight
runs in the fourth inning, capped by Stacey Nuveman's three-run
homer off Melanie Roche. The shot cut through a stiff wind to
center field, sending the U.S. bench into a frenzy and putting a
shiver through the rest of the eight-team field.

The United States (2-0), seeking its third straight gold medal,
has won its first two games in Greece by a combined 17-0 score with
both ending via the mercy rule. The Americans beat Italy on
Saturday.

It was the 12th shutout in Olympic history for the U.S. team,
which carried a 112-game winning streak into the 2000 Games before
losing three in a row. The Americans recovered by winning five
straight and another gold, learning a valuable lesson along the
way.

"We saw in Sydney that getting two wins doesn't mean you're
going to roll," Nuveman said. "We won't make that mistake
again."

The U.S. will play Japan (1-1) on Monday.

Fernandez, considered the world's finest all-around player, has
had to endure the lowest points in her athletic career against the
Aussies in Olympic round-robin play. They occurred on two pitches
she has always wanted back.

In 1996, she took a perfect game into the 10th before losing 2-1
on a walk-off home run. Then, four years ago, Fernandez struck out
a record 25 batters before she gave up a home run to Peta Edebone
in the 13th and lost 2-1.

"Yeah, but she beats us when it counts," Roskvist said.

Fernandez avenged the loss in 2000 by defeating the Aussies in
the semifinals, and it's a safe bet the U.S. team will face them
once more at these games.

"We're going to see them again," shortstop Natasha Watley
said. "Our goal was to jump on them from the get-go."

Fernandez made sure the Americans did just that, hitting a
two-run double off starter Brooke Wilkins in the first.

Australia got its only hit off Fernandez in the second, but it
shouldn't have counted. Edebone grounded to short, but the
third-base umpire ruled it was a foul ball, saying it went off the
Australian first baseman's foot first. TV replays, however, showed
Edebone's grounder cleanly left the plate area.

Given a second chance, Edebone singled to right.

Shortly after her defense let Fernandez down in the third inning
with one error and a dropped foul pop, U.S. second baseman
Lovieanne Jung booted a grounder but recovered and threw out
Natalie Ward at home. Nuveman made a nice play at the plate,
dropping low to stop Ward's slide.

Not wanting to tip his hand until the last minute, U.S. coach
Mike Candrea listed first-time Olympian Cat Osterman as the
starting pitcher on his original lineup card and Fernandez as the
Americans' designated player.

But when he turned it in to umpires before the game, Fernandez
was the one going to the mound.

As if there was any doubt.

Jennie Finch may be the new face of American softball, but
Fernandez has been in the circle for virtually every big
international game the U.S. has played in the last decade. And
before Fernandez finishes her third Olympic Games, she's counting
on being in a few more.

"This," she said, "is what you live for."