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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 8, 2002

U.S. softball still golden

By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

Yesterday's U.S. Cup gold-medal game was a replay of the 2000 Olympic gold-medal game, but it could have been any important softball game the past 15 years.

Team USA's Leah Amico had two hits and also scored what proved to be the winning run in the top of the seventh inning.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

The United States won.

That the score was 1-0 and the opponent was Japan and some 800 watched at Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium will ultimately be inconsequential. This is just the latest in a decade and a half of dominance.

Team USA has been the world's top-ranked women's softball team since 1986. It has won the Olympics' only two softball gold medals, the past four Pan Am Games golds and will go for its fifth consecutive World Championship later this month.

Yesterday, a Japan team that served serious notice with a 6-1 victory over the the United States Thursday was three-hit by Lisa Fernandez when it counted. The 32-year-old UCLA assistant coach has been part of Team USA's success since 1990.

All three hits came in the third. Reika Utsugi, Japan's oldest player at 39, got the first to lead the inning off. Masumi Mishina followed with another single. U.S. catcher Stacey Nuveman caught Yumi Iwabuchi's bunt for the first out, but Naomi Arai singled to load the bases.

Fernandez got Misako Ando to watch a third strike and Kazue Ito lined out to left-center, moments after centerfielder Laura Berg had been moved a few steps closer to left by outfield coach John Rittman.

When Ito's hit ripped by her, Fernandez's first thought was "Oh dang," or something close.

"I was disappointed in the pitch I threw and the location," Fernandez said. "As I turned around I saw it in the air for a period of time and I knew Laura Berg was out there. There's not a better centerfielder in the game than Laura Berg. She'll do whatever it takes to make sure the ball gets caught.

"That makes my job easier. I no longer have to worry about getting 21 strikeouts a game. I simply have to let my defense play catch."

Winning pitcher Lisa Fernandez of the United States gave up three hits — all in the third inning — en route to a shutout.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

With the international game moving the mound back three feet (43 feet from the plate) this year, every team now maintains that philosophy. But despite the hitters' new advantage, pitchers still dominated this week.

Japan (4-1) scored six runs against the U.S. Thursday, but American pitchers threw shutouts in the other four games. Japan's pitchers helped their team strike silver by allowing just five runs in five games.

Yesterday, the last 14 Japanese batters went down as the first six had, flailing at Fernandez pitches or lining out to perfectly positioned U.S. fielders.

"Lisa does have a name behind her, that helps a little," said Jessica Mendoza, grinning about her old idol and new teammate. "She's just a great pitcher. Japan's swinging the bat, but Lisa is just not afraid of anyone. She hardly throws any balls. She goes after every hitter and lets us play defense. Half the time they don't hit it, but when they do, we're ready for them."

Team USA's offense was in direct contrast to Japan's. The United States was scoreless going into the last inning despite six hits and two Japan errors. Fernandez struck out twice and grounded out, leaving four runners stranded — three in scoring position. Leadoff batter Natasha Watley left three more.

Mendoza, a Stanford All-American the last four years, did not. When Leah Amico singled with two outs in the seventh, Mendoza launched a double to the wall in right-center to chase her in.

"You get a base hit, that happens," said Mendoza, who was part of the team that won the inaugural U.S. Cup last year. "But to have a base hit in those moments, that's why you play the game."

Six U.S. players have won Olympic gold medals, including Amico, 27, whose son Jake turned 1 Saturday. Seven others were playing in college two months ago. This team has been together just three weeks.

First-year coach Mike Candrea called its accomplishment this week "baby steps." This "baby" has the potential to be remarkably precocious.

"When I was 12," Mendoza said, "I waited in line 3 hours to get Lisa Fernandez's autograph. I still have it at home. Michelle Smith, too. It's kinda funny, playing with people you grew up looking up to. Being on the same field with them is that much more motivating. I love it.

"The dynamics of this team are awesome. We've got older girls who have been there and done that and then we have us young kids ready to go after it, fresh and excited."

Australia (2-3) won the bronze medal for the second year, defeating China 1-0 in extra innings. Natalie Ward's one-out single scored pinch runner Kerry Wyborn in the eighth. Wyborn started the inning on second because of the international tiebreaker rule. She moved to third on Sally McCreedy's bunt.

Losing pitcher Lixia Zhang threw a three-hitter — two by Ward — while winning pitcher Kellie Hardy shut China (2-4) out on six hits. Canada (1-4) finished fifth.

Amateur Softball Association officials said the U.S. Cup will return to Hawai'i a third year in 2003. The dates will be set after the 2003 Canada Cup dates are confirmed.

• • •

SHORT HOPS: These teams move on to the Canada Cup, which begins Friday in Surrey, British Columbia. ... Team USA goes for its fifth consecutive International Softball Federation Women's World Championship July 25-Aug. 4 in Saskatoon, Canada. ... The top four teams there qualify for the Games in Athens, with the winner getting the top seed. ... Japan finished last in the inaugural U.S. Cup last year, then won the Canada Cup the following week.