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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

U.S. Defeat Positively Dramatic

Softball: Australia's victory over United States might have done more for the sport than any game ever played.

July 27, 1996|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COLUMBUS, Ga. — It may be remembered in women's softball as the shot heard 'round the Olympic village, a two-out aluminum bat blast that shattered a perfect game, derailed one of the world's great winning skeins, had Tom Brokaw waxing about it in prime time and perhaps rid the sport of those dim-witted comparisons to Sunday beer-league slow-pitch.

Could one game, a softball game, Australia 2, the United States 1, do all that?

This one could.

You want drama? Lisa Fernandez, star pitcher for Team USA, winners of 63 of 64 games on a pre-Olympic exhibition tour, had retired 29 Australians in a row, striking out 15, when Joanne Brown stepped to the plate Friday with a runner on second in the bottom of the 10th inning, the U.S. leading, 1-0.

A runner on second? In a perfect game? OK, so it isn't a perfect sport. In international softball, if the score is tied after nine innings, the team at bat starts with a runner at second.

The U.S. had pushed across its tiebreaking run on Aussie Hayle Petrie's throwing error in the top of the 10th to take a 1-0 lead that appeared invincible in the hands of Fernandez, who was slinging heat the way Roger Clemens did the night he struck out 20.

Fernandez, grunting with each pitch, struck out Kim Cooper to open the 10th and then got Jocelyn Lester to ground out to third.

After working the count to 1-2 on Brown, the 8,605 at Golden Park standing and yelping, Fernandez served up what she called a "fattie," a pitch that Brown hit over the center-field fence for the game-winning home run.

"It was supposed to be a rise ball," Fernandez said later.

It rose, all right.

"Pitching 101 will tell you that you shouldn't come with something over the plate when you are that far ahead in the count," Fernandez said.

Fernandez, making her Olympic debut, had given up two hits in her previous 79 2/3 innings.

The defeat was only the second for the U.S. in the last 10 years of international competition.

You want coincidence? This wasn't just any Aussie who took Fernandez deep. It was Brown, Fernandez's former UCLA teammate, a comrade on the Bruins' 1992 national title team.

"Oh my God," Brown said she said when the ball left her bat.

Center fielder Laura Berg, who watched the ball sail over her head into the seats, had a different take.

"You don't want to know what I said," she said.

You want international intrigue? That wasn't just any Aussie who gave up six hits in 10 innings to pick up the win. It was Tanya Harding, the same Down Under ex-patriot who bolted UCLA two days after pitching the Bruins to the 1995 NCAA title, leaving in her wake an academic mess that still hasn't been resolved.

Harding was accused of being UCLA's gun-for-hire. Harding, remember, wandered onto campus 21 games into the season and was back home in Brisbane, frying shrimp on the barbie, before they hoisted the banner in Westwood. That UCLA scholarship for Harding? Well, that was a grant the school really didn't have coming, leading to a Pacific 10 probation and NCAA inquiry.

So how did it feel after sticking it to the USA?

"I really don't want to talk about that," Harding said of her UCLA experience. "Not this week. It's a dead issue."

You want unheard of? How about the fifth-inning home run that really wasn't, Dani Tyler's solo blast that should have secured Fernandez's perfect game in regulation. Except, well, that when Tyler circled third and headed toward home, she neglected to do one little thing.

She forget to touch home plate. In a sport in which scoring a run is like striking silver, this was an unpardonable sin. Jocelyn Lester, the Aussie catcher, quickly appealed the play and tagged home plate. First-base umpire Michael Hornak called Tyler out.

Tyler, the U.S. team's slick-fielding third baseman, could not believe the gape of her blunder.

"I just can't believe I missed it," a distraught Tyler said later. "I really thought I went over it."

It didn't help that when Brown hit her game-winner, she made sure to stomp on home plate with both feet, a pointed display if ever there was one.

Tyler won't feel better when she sees the replay, which seemed to show that she came up short of the plate with her left foot and stepped over it with her right.

U.S. players rallied to defend Tyler.

"The guy who called it didn't have a good view of it," said Berg, the first to greet Tyler at home.

According to the postgame umpires' report, though, it was the first-base umpire's call to make.

Sacrilege? Let's just say the Americans could afford the loss. At 5-0, they had already clinched a medal-round berth.

Who distresses over a defeat that dropped Team USA's 10-year record in international play to 115-2?

Then again, if this happens against in the the medal round. . . .

"This game was good for softball," Richardson said. "That was what this is all about."

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