BEIJING, China (Courtesy USA Softball)--- The USA Softball team has advanced to its fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal game after a heart-pumping 4-1 nine inning victory against Japan. The pitching of Monica Abbott (Salinas, Calif.) held off the Japanese through eight innings before the efforts of Caitlin Lowe (Tustin, Calif.) and power hitter Crystl Bustos (Canyon Country, Calif.) put four runs on the board in the top of the ninth to seal the victory. The U.S. moved to 8-0 overall and will match up in the gold medal game against Japan, who defeated Australia in a 12-inning Bronze Medal game.
“Well if I said it was a great ballgame it would be an understatement,” said head coach Mike Candrea. “That was softball at its best internationally. There were two very good teams and you saw great pitching, saw great defense, great adjustments at the plate, international tie-breaker, 20 second clock. You really saw everything that the sport has to offer. It was a tremendous effort on Monica’s part. I thought she threw exceptionally well and gave us an opportunity to win the game.”
In the top of the ninth with a 1-0 lead, Bustos drove her fifth home run of the Games at least 250 feet into the left field stands giving the U.S. the eventual 4-1 win.
“Basically I was just trying to stay calm,” said Bustos. “Throughout the game I was trying to make adjustments to her (Ueno) pitches and try to hit what she was throwing instead of waiting for my pitch. And stepping into the box that time she came with that first ball I took hard down the middle. Then I knew she wasn’t going to throw anything that was going to try to dance by me. I knew she was going to throw at me hard and try to beat me with her speed. Knowing the last at bat she jammed me up and in so I knew she was going to go there again.”
Starting Japanese pitcher Yukiko Ueno, who has defeated the U.S. on four occasions since the 2004 Olympic Games, was solid through the first two innings retiring six consecutive U.S. batters.
Olympic rookie Abbott started in the circle for the U.S. team earning her third start of the Games. The left-handed hurler started the first inning allowing a hit up the middle to Japan’s Eri Yamada but closed down the inning with a swinging strikeout, her second of the inning.
Abbott and the U.S. defense continued the pitchers duel in the circle retiring the next three Japanese batters via a strikeout, pop out and flyout.
Stacey Nuveman (La Verne, Calif.) jump started the U.S. offense in the top of the third inning driving the first hit of her at bat to left field for a base hit. Looking to put up the game’s first run, the U.S. left the inning high and dry as the Japanese defense stayed strong.
Lowe came out firing in the top of the fourth inning with a leadoff base hit just shy of the left field foul line. Legging it out for a double, Lowe slid into second base but was called out on a throw from Japanese left fielder Satoko Mabuchi to second baseman Masumi Mishina.
The U.S. put its first runner in scoring position in the top of the fifth inning when Andrea Duran (Selma, Calif.) connected on a single and later moved 60 feet to second base from a Nuveman sacrifice bunt. With two outs, Lovie Jung (Fountain Valley, Calif.), who is hitting .467 for the U.S. with six RBI, was eager to notch her seventh RBI, but Ueno got in the way as Jung was called on a third strike to close the inning.
Abbott continued to rock from the circle, as the U.S. saw its fourth hit of the game in the top of the fifth when Tairia Flowers (Tucson, Ariz.) drove the ball through the left side. Lowe then reached first on a walk that was issued after a 3-2 count saw Ueno not throw the ball in time of the :20 second clock therefore a ball No. 4 was called. With RBI leader Jessica Mendoza (Camarillo, Calif.) at the plate and two runners on, the dugout and stands were cheering loud looking to get momentum. Mendoza then drove a hard line drive right at Japanese third baseman Megu Hirose who then turned a double play to first base calling Lowe out to silence the momentum keeping the game at zeros.
The bottom of the seventh inning brought much excitement as Japan made a two-out rally.
With a score of 0-0, the international tie-breaker rule was put into effect in the top of the 8th inning placing Duran, the batter schedule to hit ninth in the inning, at second base. With Nuveman scheduled to hit, Candrea called on four-time Olympic veteran Laura Berg (Santa Fe Springs, Calif.) to pinch hit. With speed and bunting skills, Berg drove an infield base hit to Japanese shortstop Rei Nishiyama and was safe at first putting runners at the corners with no outs. Jung and Flowers then struck out swinging bringing leadoff Watley to the plate. Watley fouled off a couple pitches before a ground out to Ueno closed the inning again scoreless.
In the bottom of the eighth inning, Japan’s Hirose was placed on second base before back-to-back foul outs from Japan quickly put two outs on board. The battery of Nuveman and Abbott continued to roll however, as Motoko Fujimoto was strikeout victim No. 11 for Abbott.
The zeros came off the board for Team USA in the top ninth inning as the U.S. took a 1-0 lead. With “wheels” Watley at second base for the tie-breaker rule, leadoff Lowe drove an infield base hit to the shortstop who didn’t cleanly field the ball pushing Watley across home plate to a team full of hugs and celebration. With Lowe at first, Mendoza earned a walk with one ball coming again from Ueno missing the :20 second clock on one of the four pitches. With two runners on, it was the amazing swing of clean-up hitter Bustos who belted her 13th career Olympic home run to left center for three RBI and the insurance runs needed to head to the bottom of the 9th. The home run marked Bustos’ fifth of the ‘08 Games tying her ‘04 record of most home runs in an Olympic Games.
Lowe led the U.S. bats going 2-for-3 with a walk as Abbott moved to 3-0 in Olympic action.
The bottom of the ninth inning put Japan’s Fujimoto on second base before Karino Ayumi connected on a base hit off Abbott scoring Fuijimoto for the 4-1 difference. The U.S. held strong coming home with their 8th victory in as many days now advancing to the 2008 Olympic Gold Medal Game.
The team will look to make history tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. for the Gold Medal game. Team USA will face Japan after the Japanese survived a 12-inning marathon vs. Australia in the Bronze Medal game. The game will be televised LIVE on USA at 6:30 a.m./ET.