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U.S. gets scare in softball, but beats Japan to reach gold medal game

August 20, 2008

BEIJING (AP) -- For the U.S. softball team, there's one more game for gold, and then one last goodbye.

The Americans are marching toward their fourth straight gold medal in the sport's swan song at the Olympics for at least eight years.

Throughout these games, the U.S. had been routing one nation after another -- hardly breaking a sweat -- until Wednesday.

Japan pushed them to extra innings before the U.S. scored four runs in the ninth to win 4-1, earning the spot in the gold medal game.

Their star, once again, was Crystl Bustos, who hit a three-run homer that nearly cleared the left-field bleachers at Fengtai Field, to put the finishing touches on a Japanese team that gave this American-made scoring machine all it could handle.

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"One win away," said U.S. center fielder Caitlin Lowe.

And the U.S. will have to beat Japan again to get it. The Japanese beat Australia 4-3 in 12 innings to advance, leaving the Aussies with the bronze.

The Americans had won their first seven games in Beijing by a combined 53-1 and came in batting .377 as a team to their opponents' .042. The U.S. needed just five innings to claim its last four victories before officials enforced the mercy rule -- when a team is seven or more runs ahead after five innings.

Four years ago, the U.S. rolled to gold in the shadow of the Acropolis. The Americans rewrote the record book, breaking 18 marks while winning their third straight Olympic title in the 12 years since softball joined the games in 1996.

Damn Yankees! That's what the International Olympic Committee seemed to be saying when the sport was voted off the 2012 program, a decision that stunned softball to its core and left its supporters hoping this tournament would be more competitive.

Until Wednesday, it wasn't.

Japanese pitcher Yukiko Ueno, who has beaten the Americans four times since 2004, held the U.S. sluggernaut in check as long as she could.

"She hit her spots really well, and she capitalized on the fact that we were trying so hard," Jessica Mendoza said.

With a runner at second base in the seventh against Monica Abbott, Japan was 120 feet from the upset of upsets. All it would have taken was a hit, just a bloop to score the winning run and spin the softball world on its stitched head.

It wasn't to be. Tested to the max, the U.S. came away with another win.

"And Bustos dotted the 'i'," coach Mike Candrea said.

Was the U.S. team getting nervous with gold in its sights?

"I wouldn't say nervous," Mendoza said. "It's more like that internal want, if that's the right way to describe it. You're so close to getting to that game that you want to be in. You want that win, and you're that close. You could just feel us want it, want it and want it."

They almost didn't get it.

Ueno shut them out for seven innings, and just as they did in Greece four years ago before losing, Japan took the U.S. into extra frames when the international tiebreaker goes into effect.

Each team begins its at-bat in the eighth with a runner -- the No. 9 hitter due up that inning -- on second base.

"I hate it," Candrea said. "I'd rather keep playing."

But Candrea, who led the U.S. to gold in Athens, makes his team practice the tense situations all the time.

The Americans started the eighth with the speedy Natasha Watley on second. Lowe followed by bouncing a base hit off shortstop Rei Nishiyama's glove and into center field, scoring Watley who was greeted with hugs by her teammates.

U.S. 1, Japan 0.

"A relief," said Lowe.

Ueno then walked Mendoza, and although first base was open, Japan manager Haruka Saito elected to have his ace pitch to Bustos, the undisputed queen of all softball power hitters.

Bustos had grounded out, struck out and popped out in her three previous at-bats, so when she stepped into the batter's box, the 30-year-old's game plan was to make Ueno, who jammed her on the hands with a pitch in the seventh, throw her an inside pitch.

She got it.

She destroyed it.

"I knew she was going to go there again," said Bustos, whose shot came about five rows from exiting the 10,000-seat ballpark. "I was ready."

Before breaking toward third, Lowe looked over her shoulder and admired her teammate's fifth homer of these games and 13th in three Olympics.

"So cool," Lowe said. "I felt like I was doing the home-run trot around the bases. When Bustos gets a hold of one, you know it's out. It was a great kind of exclamation point on the day."

Bustos chuckled when she was asked to describe the feeling of turning on a ball and driving it that far.

"You don't even feel it," she said. "Like I was telling coach, you don't even feel it hit the bat. You just feel the motions before it, but you don't feel it, you just see it."

Bustos knew Ueno wouldn't walk her.

"That's one thing with Japan," she said. "They're going to come at you."

The U.S. could face Japan again, this time for gold. The Americans, who have now outscored the field 57-2 in China, will face the winner of the Japan-Australia bronze-medal game.

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