ATHENS, Greece -- Not sun. Not wind. Not Japan. Right now, nothing can stop the U.S. Olympic softball team.Helped by two errors, one on a ball lost in the unforgiving Mediterranean glare, the Americans scored three runs in the eighth Monday for a 3-0 win over Japan. The victory extends the U.S. team's winning streak to 73 games.Reika Utsugi's inability to catch Lovieanne Jung's easy foul pop helped pave the way for Team USA.
Cat Osterman, the 21-year-old left-hander whose pitches dance around the strike zone, pitched a one-hitter with 11 strikeouts as the United States (3-0) remained the only unbeaten team in the eight-team tournament -- barely.
"Oh my gosh, I'm going to have gray hairs and I'm 23,'' left fielder Jessica Mendoza said after yet another nail-biter between the two nations.
After two blowouts to open round-robin play, the U.S. team couldn't get a hit for the first seven innings. But Japan couldn't score either, and the game went to the international tiebreaker where each team gets to start the eighth inning with a runner at second base.
In the nerve-racking inning, Kelly Kretschman hit a sacrifice fly, pinch-hitter Jenny Topping had an RBI single and Lovieanne Jung, who walked after battling Japan starter Juri Takayama during a 17-pitch at-bat, scored when Natasha Watley beat out an infield single.
Japan (1-2), which lost to the Americans 2-1 in the gold medal game four years ago in Sydney, made two costly errors in the eighth. One came when third baseman Reika Utsugi couldn't see Jung's easy foul pop.
The timing of the Americans' early-round matchup with Japan was oddly similar to the U.S. team's game against them in 2000.
Just as they've done in Greece, the Americans shut out their first two opponents in Australia -- then they had a 112-game winning streak snapped as Japan beat them 2-1 in 11 innings.
Takayama got the win in that game with 2 2/3 innings of relief, but she took the loss in the gold medal game when Laura Berg's eighth-inning single popped in and out of falling left fielder Shiori Koseki's glove.
Takayama and her teammates have to be heartbroken following this one, too.
Especially Utsugi, who came back out onto the field after the game. She looked up at the sun and shielded her eyes, reliving the moment that extended Jung's at-bat.
"I heard our bench yell when it dropped,'' said Jung, who was running to first on her pop and didn't see Utsugi drop it. "I just took a deep breath because I knew I had another chance.''
With pinch-runner Amanda Freed at second to start the eighth, Stacey Nuveman sacrificed.Jung, who was out front of Takayama's pitches all afternoon, then ripped foul balls into the left-field stands and against the netting in front of Japan's dugout before working the count to 3-2.Lovieanne Jung's 17-pitch at-bat was another Team USA highlight.
"That was an incredible at-bat,'' said Kretschman. "Awesome. She (Jung) was just stubborn.''
On Takayama's 16th pitch, Jung hit the easy pop that Utsugi couldn't find, keeping Jung alive.
"It was right there,'' said Candrea, who was just a few away from Utsugi in the third-base coaching box. "Then all of a sudden, she just bailed out. I didn't have a hard time seeing it.''
Given another chance, Jung walked and Kretschman followed with a sacrifice fly to medium center, scoring Freed. Mendoza followed with a solid single to center -- the U.S. team's first hit.
Topping then pulled her single to right and Jung scored when the ball was bobbled by outfielder Yumi Iwabuchi. The speedy Watley then beat out her infield hit, and Mendoza raced home.
Neither team could get anything going on offense through the first three innings as Osterman and Takayama traded pitches. The hitters that they couldn't strike out or induce into hitting weak grounders were humbled by Greece's famed Meltemi wind, which whipped from left to right through stadium.
Japan didn't get its first hit off Osterman until the fifth, when second baseman Masumi Mishina dropped a soft, one-out single into left.
The Americans wouldn't get their first hit for three more innings, and it came after they had scored the only run they would need.
"We're on such a high right now, we could probably play games back-to-back,'' Kretschman said.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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