U.S. softball one win short of third gold
ATHENS, Greece -- One more victory and the U.S. softball team will have its goal: a third Olympic gold.
Lisa Fernandez pitched a three-hitter Sunday and Crystl Bustos drove in two runs as the Americans rolled to their eighth shutout in eight days, 5-0 over Australia, putting them into the gold medal game.
The Aussies set up a rematch for the gold when they beat Japan 3-0 later Sunday behind Tanya Harding, who has beaten the Americans twice during her Olympic career and is likely to face them again for the championship.
At this point, the opponent doesn't really matter much to the Americans, who have been as perfect as any team could be.
And here's a scary thought: U.S. coach Mike Candrea says his club has yet to play its best game.
"That one was pretty good,'' he said. "But I'm still waiting.''
Natasha Watley had three more infield hits, Kelly Kretschman homered and the U.S. team (8-0) dominated again. The Americans have won 78 straight games since last July, and have yet to yield a run in the Athens Games. They've outscored their opponents 46-0 while allowing just 14 hits.
In Sunday's first semifinal, Japan's Reika Utsugi hit an RBI single in the eighth to drive in the only run and center fielder Eri Yamada sealed the 1-0 victory over China by throwing out Li Chunxia at the plate to end the game.
Fernandez had the Aussies off balance from the start. She tossed mostly junk at the two-time defending bronze medalists' potent lineup, getting them to pop up or hit weak grounders. It was vintage Fernandez, who at 33 is still the best all-around player in the game.
"That's what makes Lisa Fernandez so good,'' Candrea said. "She had a whole different game plan.''
Instead of starting Harding, the only pitcher to beat the United States twice in Olympic play, Australian coach Simon Roskvist went with Melanie Roche, a former star at Oklahoma State who got rocked in a 10-0 loss to the U.S. team in the preliminary round.
"I was surprised,'' said U.S. assistant coach Ken Eriksen. "We saw Roche once already and look what we did to her.''
Bustos' two-run single highlighted the Americans' three-run fifth, set up when Roche double-clutched after fielding Watley's one-out slap bunt and didn't make a throw to second.
The Americans made her pay for the mental misplay.
Leah O'Brien-Amico followed with a single to load the bases for Bustos, who hit a two-run single to put the Americans ahead 3-0.
Fernandez was hit by a pitch and Stacey Nuveman followed with a sacrifice fly, making it 4-0 against Australia and 44-0 against the field.
Kretschman homered in the sixth as the Americans kept the pedal down.
Fernandez, who hit just .097 four years ago in Sydney, gave the U.S. a 1-0 lead in the fourth with an RBI double. She came into the game batting .556 in Athens.
In the first inning, Fernandez had an illegal pitch called against her by first base umpire Leanna Pacini, who ruled the three-time Olympian's foot had left the rubber before she delivered the ball.
That led to a five-minute delay as a grounds crew member dug out dirt at the center of the pitching circle.
If that one pitch was illegal, then some of the Fernandez's over the next few innings were flat out wrong. She teased the Aussies with her knee-buckling change-up, floating the ball up to the plate and daring them to hit it.
"I felt like I had to try and keep them off balance,'' Fernandez said. "They were going to make adjustments and I had to stay one step ahead.''
Tracey Mosley guessed right on a fastball, getting Australia's first hit when she blooped a single over second baseman Lovieanne Jung's glove to start the third. But pinch-runner Amanda Doman was thrown out by catcher Stacey Nuveman -- the first runner to try to swipe a base off the United States in these games.
With two outs in the fifth, Simmone Morrow got the first extra-base hit off the U.S. pitching staff in nearly 47 innings, one-hopping a double off the wall in left. But Fernandez again went to the change-up, retiring Mosley on a weak grounder to third.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press