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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Cornell Creates Golden Opportunity

Softball: Her bases-loaded single in bottom of 10th gives U.S. a 1-0 victory over China and berth in final.

July 30, 1996|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COLUMBUS, Ga. — The U.S. softball team advanced to its precious gold-medal game, although it was about as easy as hitting a Lisa Fernandez fastball with a broom handle.

So much for the team that was going to level the competition.

Team USA, loser of one game in 10 years of international play before the Atlanta Olympics, continued to make things too interesting Monday night, needing a heroic pitching effort from Fernandez and Sheila Cornell's bases-loaded single in the bottom of the 10th to defeat China, 1-0, before a crowd of 8,729 at Golden Park.

"We had some misfortunes," Fernandez said. "But we fought back."

Fernandez, three days removed from Friday's gut-wrenching loss to Australia, in which Joanne Brown broke up her perfect game with a game-winning homer, answered with a three-hit, 13-strikeout, 10-inning tiebreaker shutout against the pesky Chinese.

Fernandez endured in spite of the vagaries of her offense, which squandered countless chances to make the journey painless. The United States pounded out 10 hits against two pitchers, but stranded 10 runners, some in excruciating circumstances.

"The book says you have so many chances to score," Coach Ralph Raymond said. "You can't leave 10 runners stranded, and yet we did."

In the end, the U.S. took advantage of dumb luck when shortstop Dot Richardson got hit in the back with the ball by shortstop Wei Qiang as she tried to force Richardson at third with two runners on in the bottom of the 10th.

Under international tie-breaker rules, which go into effect after nine innings, Richardson started the inning at second base.

After Julie Smith was hit by a pitch by Wang Lihong to open the inning, Dianna Harris grounded to Wei, who plunked Richardson, loading the bases with no outs.

Could the U.S. blow this chance too?

Luckily, the Americans had brought their trusty face-saver, first-baseman Cornell, whose two-run homer against China on Saturday put the U.S. into the medal round.

This time, Cornell did it to the Chinese with a one-out, ground-ball single to center, scoring Richardson from third. Cornell was so excited she had to remind herself to run to first, a fundamental as basic as, oh, touching home plate after you hit a home run.

Since Thursday, the U.S. has struggled to a 4-2 victory over Canada, lost to Australia, then beat China twice by single runs in its final at-bat.

The Chinese have to be encouraged by their play against the United States, a far cry from 1981, when Richardson remembers beating them 30-0.

And this Chinese-American saga may not be over. The teams could meet again tonight for the gold because of the quirky bracket format. As the second-seeded team, China plays in today's bronze-medal game against No. 3 Australia, a 3-0 winner over No. 4 Japan in Monday's other semifinal.

The winner of China-Australia will dust off, get a quick drink, then play the U.S. for the gold.

But can the Americans survive another game like Monday's?

They had one runner thrown out at the plate, Julie Smith in the third; one runner doubled up on a baserunning error, Michele Smith in the fifth; one runner tagged out in a rundown, Laura Berg in the seventh.

Four times the Americans put the lead-off runner on. Four times she didn't score.

It appeared that the U.S. might pay when Fernandez, who retired the first 18 batters, faltered in the seventh. Zhang Chunfang broke up her perfect game with a bloop single, moved to second on a sacrifice, then to third on Liu Xuqing's single.

But Fernandez escaped unscathed with help from Richardson, who made a nice play on Wang Ying's grounder, holding the runner at third before firing to first.

Fernandez then got one of China's top hitters, Tao Hua, to pop out to third.

Fernandez also came up big in the 10th, when she doused China's tie-breaking advantage by retiring the side in order.

Fernandez would have pitched all night if necessary.

"My tank is never empty," she said.

You sense she could come back and pitch tonight's title game, but Raymond isn't letting anyone in on that little secret.

"I know who's pitching, but I'm not telling you," Raymond gruffly told reporters. "Do you ever ask China or Japan who's pitching? I never see that in the paper."

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