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U.S. Diamond Glitter Has Turned Into Dust

Softball: Two-run homer in bottom of 13th gives Australia 2-1 victory and Americans unprecedented third loss in row.


BLACKTOWN, Australia — Welcome to Lisa Fernandez's nightmare--one that has enveloped the entire U.S. softball team.

The defending gold medalists' aura of invincibility vanished Thursday in their 2-1 loss to exultant Australia at Blacktown Softball Center. Instead of competing with Japan and Australia for supremacy, they must now fight to qualify for the medal round in their two remaining preliminary-round games.

Peta Edebone's two-out, two-run home run in the bottom of the 13th inning off Fernandez dropped the U.S. to 2-3 and was an eerie echo of Australia's 2-1 victory over Fernandez and the U.S. in round-robin play at Atlanta, gained on a 10th-inning home run by Joanne Brown. Four years ago, losing to Australia was a mere bump in a path to the gold medal; Thursday's defeat--a record third in a row for the U.S.--was perilous as well as painful, because it represented the waste of another brilliant pitching performance.

Fernandez gave up only one hit through 12 innings and had struck out 25, breaking the Olympic record set 12 hours earlier by teammate Michele Smith in the U.S. team's 2-0 loss to China. Edebone's home run scored Sally McCreedy, who started the 13th inning on second in accordance with international softball rules designed to increase scoring and shorten extra-inning games.

"I'm speechless," Fernandez said. "I have no excuses for my performance offensively and defensively. I'm overwhelmed. You never dream it will happen like this."

The top four teams in the eight-team tournament will qualify for the medal round. However, getting there may be beyond the limited capabilities of the U.S. offense, which has produced two runs in losing three consecutive games, all in extra innings. The U.S. is batting .181--yet has limited opponents to a .078 batting average.

"It's like there's a voodoo spell on us," U.S. left fielder Christie Ambrosi said.

The U.S. had broken a scoreless tie in the top of the 13th. Ambrosi's first hit of the tournament, a single lined to short left, scored Smith with the decisive run. Smith had started the inning on second base.

Australia (4-1) rallied moments later. Sally McCreedy started the inning on second, but Fernandez quickly got the next two outs. Her second pitch to Edebone landed in the sun-drenched left-field seats. Australia starter Tanya Harding, formerly of UCLA, limited the U.S. to four hits and struck out 17.

"It's do or die for us," Fernandez said. "It's going to be a gut check of what we're all about, and I think this team is up for the challenge. . . . I know this team is going to come through."

The defeat came barely 12 hours after a draining 2-0, 14-inning loss to China on Wednesday that squandered a magnificent complete-game effort by left-hander Smith. The U.S. left 11 runners on base against China pitcher Yanqing Zhang and has stranded 42 runners in the last three games.

A U.S. fielding error helped China win the 3-hour 57-minute game, just as two errors by second baseman Dot Richardson and one by right fielder Leah O'Brien-Amico enabled Japan to defeat the U.S. in 11 innings Tuesday, 2-1.

China began the 14th inning with a runner on second, Xiaoling Deng. Smith struck out the first two batters, but Xia Mu tapped a bunt up the third-base line that stubbornly stayed fair as the U.S. infielders watched it roll. Deng advanced to third on the play.

Xia Mu then hit a shot that deflected off Smith's leg and caromed toward second base, where it was scooped up by second baseman Jennifer McFalls. Her off-balance throw sailed well past first, scoring Deng and Mu.

The silence of the U.S. bats is mystifying. The team's batting average in the 1996 Games was .280, but this team will have to get hot to hit .200. In 1996, U.S. batters struck out 29 times in nine games; they've already struck out more in five games. Even in its pre-Olympic tour, against lesser opponents such as college all-star teams, two college teams and Women's Pro Softball League teams, the U.S. batted .352. That assurance and explosiveness have vanished.

"I'm sure we've opened up a can of worms in terms of teams thinking they can shut us down," Fernandez said after stretching her personal hitless streak to 18 with an 0-for-5 performance against China. "It's not often you see USA Softball held to one run over however many innings. . . .

"No one assumed we were going to go undefeated and everyone was going to bat .500. But it's not over. The most important part of the tournament has yet to be played. We're still in this. Once it comes down to four teams, your record doesn't matter. We've got stay in the top four. No one will remember your record later."

That record only got worse Thursday under a hot sun in this western suburb of Sydney.

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