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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | SOFTBALL

Americans Rebound With Rally

July 28, 1996|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COLUMBUS, Ga. — Given the events of the day, the "devastation" of the U.S. women's softball defeat by Australia 24 hours earlier had taken on a new context Saturday.

But, really, a second time? You had to be kidding.

Michele Smith thought so.

One day after teammate Lisa Fernandez had lost a 1-0 lead and the game by giving up a dramatic, two-run home run on a 1-and-2 pitch, Smith offered her reenactment.

Standing tall on the mound, leading, 1-0, in the sixth, having struck out five of the last six batters, Smith hand-delivered China's Liu Xuqing a 1-and-2 changeup and watched it sail into the left-field seats for a two-run homer.

As reporters began constructing leads about the overselling of the United States as a world softball power, first baseman Sheila Cornell came to the rescue, blasting a two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth that gave the U.S. a 3-2 comeback victory against China before a sellout crowd of 8,713 at Golden Park.

The victory restored order to the world pecking order, at least for now. The U.S. finished group play with a 6-1 record and begins play in Monday's semifinal round as the top-seeded team. The U.S. will play No. 2 China again, and No. 3 Australia faces No. 4 Japan in the other game.

"The most awesome feeling I've ever had in my life," Cornell said of her home run to left-center. "Sheer exuberance."

For Smith, Cornell's blast was sheer relief.

You didn't need to remind Smith of the deja vu.

"It flashed in my mind," she said of her repeat of Fernandez's folly.

Smith took full blame, and was still upset afterward because she had not called off the changeup called by catcher Gillian Boxx. After Liu singled on a changeup in the first, U.S. Coach Ralph Raymond took Smith aside and told her to throw Liu only fastballs.

"I have the final say," Smith said of pitch selection. "I'm old enough, experienced enough, I don't just throw everything the catcher says."

Those kinds of slip-ups, however, are giving hope to those who were told the U.S. was already shining the gold.

"We're not afraid anymore," China's Yan Fang said boldly.

China defeated the U.S. last August, and that loss was the only one for the U.S. in 10 years of international play until Friday's loss to Australia.

It's possible China and the U.S. will meet twice more in the medal round because of an unusual seeding system. If the U.S. beats China on Monday, it will get a bye and qualify for Tuesday's gold-medal game. But China could get a rematch by defeating the winner of Monday's Japan-Australia semifinal in a qualifying game that precedes the 7 p.m. gold-medal game Tuesday.

Should the U.S. be concerned? On Friday, it squandered several scoring chances against Australia. Against China, it had the bases loaded with no one out in the second inning and scored only once, when Boxx's sacrifice fly brought Kim Maher home from third.

Smith was mostly dominating, giving up five hits and striking out 12 and walking none.

But she gave up four of those hits in one inning, her shaky sixth.

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