Fernandez leads way against Australia

Updated: August 20, 2004, 7:39 AM ET
Associated Press

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

Lisa Fernandez
Lisa Fernandez, right, had many reasons to celebrate on Sunday.
"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."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press