Win now, cry later

USA baseball, softball teams fight for lives in final Games

By Bob Ryan
Globe Staff / August 20, 2008
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BEIJING — Wasn’t sure if I was attending a sporting event or the first night of a two-day wake.

It’s no secret what’s happening to baseball and softball in the Olympics. This is it. They’re O-U-T, out. The Eurocentric IOC members have voted to eliminate those two American-tinged pursuits from the Olympic program. There won’t be any baseball or softball facilities in London They’re each madly lobbying to get themselves re-instated for 2016, but we’ll see.

For baseball in America, it’s really no big deal. We can’t send our best players, anyway. It’s a fascinating little sub-plot in the baseball calendar; that’s all. They’ll mourn baseball’s Olympic passing in Cuba, Venezuela, South Korea, Japan and Chinese Taipei, but American baseball will survive.

Softball is an entirely different matter. Since its 1996 inaugural, Olympic softball has become the highlight event in the sport. It’s the end of the rainbow for the best American players. Sure they’re all college All-Americans and they’re all pros. It’s not as if everyone will stop playing the sport when the Beijing games are over, but being members of the national team and getting the quadrennial exposure the Olympics, and only the Olympics, can bring, is of immeasurable value to the sport in America.

Oh, sure, they’ll always have the world championships. So tell me. When and where were the last world championships?

Sadly, each game in these Olympics is both a step toward a gold medal and a step toward extinction. After Wednesday’s hard-fought 4-2 nine-inning triumph over Japan, Team USA is in a position to be the ones with the solemn duty of turning out the lights on Olympic softball. They will play Japan in a re-match (actually, a third game) for the gold medal at 6:30 p.m. Beijing time Thursday night.

How can it be Japan? Is that what you’re asking? Softball has a peculiar way of doing things. The semis consist of a game between seed No.1 1 and seed No.2 and a game between Nos. 3 and 4. The winner of 1-2 goes to the gold medal game. The loser of 1-2 plays the winner of 3-4 for the right to play for the gold. As always, just remember that we are just humble Americans trying to deal with the funny little ways of international sport.

Anyway, Japan fought through to the gold medal game against the USA with an epic 12-inning conquest of Australia. The winning pitcher was 26-year old righthander Yukiko Ueno, who went all 12 innings some seven hours after going nine in the losing effort against America. Presumably, she will not be pitching in the gold medal game. Of course, she could always pull a Hershiser or a Big Unit and close.

But the USA will be there, all right, thanks to the big-hearted pitching of 6-foot-3 inch lefty Monica Abbott (with a little help from fellow southpaw Cat Osterman), a timely hit by Caitlin Lowe and a predictable three-run homer by Crystl Bustos, the greatest power hitter in the history of American softball. Before Bustos’ mighty blast off Ueno came to rest about 20 rows up in the left field bleachers, at least two governments had fallen and several thousand new Chinese citizens had come into the world. It was her 13th career Olympic homer, and the term ‘‘majestic’’ doesn’t begin to do it justice.

It was a lot of work, but no expect it to be otherwise. Since 2004 Japan had beaten the USA six times. Ueno, a 5-9 power pitcher, had beaten them four times herself. She matched zeroes with Abbott for seven innings and extricated herself from a first-and-third, nobody-out jam in the eighth by going K, K, 1-3. That inning had begun, as all softball extra innings do in this competition, with a speed-up-the-game situation in which a runner is already perched on second. At least that’s better than baseball, where, starting with the 11th, innings begin with men on first and second.

Abbott had done a pretty good job herself in the bottom of the eighth, retiring the first two batters on fouls to first baseman Tairia Flowers and striking out the third.

With Natalie Watley positioned on second, Lowe hit a chopper up the middle that shortstop Rai Nishiyama couldn’t quite control, the fleet Watley scoring easily from second with the game’s first run. Jessica Mendoza walked on a 3-2 pitch, and that brought up Bustos, who had yet to have a decent at-bat, grounding meekly to third, striking out and popping to third.

‘‘Basically,’’ she explained, ‘‘I was just trying to get calm. The first three times up I was trying to make adjustments to her pitch. This time I wanted it to be my pitch. I knew she wasn’t going to try to dance one by me. I knew she’s be bringing it hard and she would try to get inside. I just tried to stay early enough to get my bat on it.’’

That, she did. This was a no-doubter from the time it left the bat. Crystl Bustos got all of it.

‘‘When you really lay into a ball like that you don’t even feel it,’’ she explained. ‘‘You just feel all the emotions that got you there.’’

‘‘Bustos kind of put the dot on the ‘i’ and gave us a little bit of breathing room,’’ noted coach Mike Candrea.

The hit turned out to be more than ceremonial when pinch-hitter Sachiki Ito singled home Motoko Fujimoto with a run in the Japanese ninth. Candrea brought in Osterman, who doused the flame in 1-2-3 fashion.

It was a radically different game than the seven that had preceded it, for, after outscoring foes 53-1, Team USA was locked in a death struggle with the formidable Japanese. ‘‘We know it will come down to a game like this,’’ said Abbott, who allowed three hits and fanned 10 in her eight-plus innings of work. ‘‘Throughout our tour leading up to the Olympics, we’d prepare for games longer than seven innings. The coach is always telling us, ‘Be prepared for 14. Be prepared for 16.’ When you only go five innings, it’s a bonus.’’

These woman try to stick to the task at hand and not dwell on the larger issue. They’ve got enough problems winning a gold without worrying about being saviors of the sport.

‘‘We’re aware of it,’’ said left fielder and No.3 hitter Jennifer Mendoza, ‘‘but we’re not really thinking about it. But, sure, it’s in our minds and hearts. A game like today showcases the sport, I believe. The emotion. The clutch play. It’s what our game is all about.’’

‘‘I’ve been kind of in a submarine tunnel,’’ admitted Candrea, ‘‘but I know things are happening behind he scenes. I hear some good things. I know IOC people are coming to our games, and that’s a positive for us.’’

First things first, says Mike Candrea. Win the gold. If this really is the end of Olympic softball, Team USA wants to say it was 4-for-4. Win now, cry later.

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