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Games : Today's Closeup

Granger Given Chance to Start Something Special


ATLANTA — The heaviest favorite in these Centennial Olympic Games is the U.S. men's basketball team, the Dream Team, as it is known.

But running a close second is the U.S. softball team, which, considering its 110-1 record in international play in the last 10 years and its 60-1 mark on its pre-Olympic national tour, could well be known as the Cream Team.

The United States ranks as the solid favorite as softball makes its Olympic debut, and Michele Granger, who grew up in Orange County, was picked Saturday to get the U.S. team off to a fast start. Granger will pitch the U.S.--and the Games'--opener today against Puerto Rico at the softball stadium in Columbus, Ga., 120 miles southwest of here.

"I'm happy and I'm ready," said Granger, who now lives in Anchorage, where her lawyer husband works for an Alaska supreme court judge.

Coach Ralph Raymond usually delays naming his starting pitchers as long as he can, and speculation had revolved around right-hander Lisa Fernandez of Long Beach and left-hander Michele Smith, the team's two top pitchers. Instead, he went with the 5-11 left-hander with the big delivery and the strikeout pitch.

"Granger is capable of doing the job," Raymond said. "Puerto Rico has a few left-handed hitters, so I'm going with the big girl."

That's just fine with Granger.

"Nothing really surprises me," she said. "You never know what to expect. But really, any of us is capable."

During the team's pre-Olympic tour, Granger had an 11-1 record and 0.13 earned-run average. She gave up only five hits and one run, striking out 169 in 67 innings. The run she allowed was the one that a California all-star team used to beat the United States, 1-0.

Fernandez, the former UCLA star who usually plays third base when she isn't pitching--and will do so today--will have a chance to renew old acquaintances against the Puerto Rican team. She once played for Puerto Rico.

Her mother is a native of Puerto Rico, and when Fernandez was 16 she played for that U.S. commonwealth's team in a European tournament. She could have played for Puerto Rico here as well, but gave that possibility scant consideration.

"I know my heritage," she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "My heart is in the USA. If someone asks my nationality, I say I'm Cuban [her father was born in Cuba] and Puerto Rican. But as a softball player, I'm an American. When you step on the field, hey, your opponent is your opponent. Nothing matters except winning that game."

Fernandez was the top U.S. pitcher on the recent national tour, winning all 14 games she pitched. She gave up no earned runs, yielded only two hits and two walks in 70 innings and pitched three perfect games.

Neither Fernandez nor Granger seems bothered by the favorite's tag.

"We have one thing in mind, and that's to win a gold medal," Fernandez said. "Going to the Olympics isn't enough. We want to win the gold. If we win the silver, it would be a disappointment."

Said Granger: "I don't think any of us really feel the pressure of being favored."

If the United States is looking for competition, however, China, Australia and Canada may be able to provide some. All are considered medal contenders. Australia, in fact, may be particularly worrisome with pitchers Tanya Harding, the hired gun who led UCLA to the NCAA title in 1995, and Melanie Roach, who played at Oklahoma State.

Also in the eight-team field are Japan, Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands.

After the initial round-robin tournament--each team plays every day through next Saturday--the top four will play in the semifinal round July 29, then the medal games will be played July 30.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.



* Dates: Today-Saturday, July 29-30

* Softball makes its debut as a medal sport in the Olympics.

* Team USA has lost only once in the last 10 years in international competition, a 1-0 setback against China last year.

Rise grip: A pitcher must throw a fastball and a changeup to disrupt the batter's timing. The rise grip spins the ball, which rises toward the plate.

The windmill: The pitcher must have her pivot foot on the pitching plate, until the ball is released with a snap of the wrist.

Knuckleball: This pitching release imparts no spin to the ball, allowing wind currents to move it up or down erratically.

Source: Softball, Fast and Slow Pitch by Mario Pagnoni and Gerald Robinson

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