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A Cleansed U.S. Ends Skid, 2-0


BLACKTOWN, Australia — The silence of their bats and the depth of their misfortune in losing three consecutive extra-inning games defied logic. Only a jinx could have pushed them to the brink of elimination from the Olympic softball tournament, U.S. players decided, and such a drastic situation called for drastic measures.

Fully dressed in their white uniforms, they climbed into a huge shower room at the athletes' village Thursday and turned on the faucets, determined to wash away their bad luck. They also tossed a softball around the room, and each player voiced her feelings. The mood was deliberately positive.

"Everybody talked about what we've been doing good," second baseman Dot Richardson said. "Sometimes when things go badly, we focus on the bad instead of the good."

If the U.S. wants to attribute its 2-0 victory over New Zealand today at the Blacktown Softball Center to its symbolic cleansing, well, a little soap and water never hurt anyone. Then again, three hits by left fielder Jennifer Brundage of Irvine, including a second-inning home run, also did a lot to sustain the U.S. team's hopes of defending the gold medal it won in Atlanta in 1996.

The U.S. (3-3) can't finish first in the eight-team group, but it can grab one of the four playoff berths by defeating Italy Saturday in the final round-robin game.

"The voodoo's gone," said third baseman Lisa Fernandez, who ended an 0-for-20 slump with a fifth-inning single. "We're ready to rock and roll."

For the U.S., which had scored two runs in 38 innings in its previous three games and had left 42 runners on base, today's effort against New Zealand (2-4) was an offensive explosion.

Brundage, who played her way into the Sydney lineup by batting .371 with a team-leading 17 home runs on the pre-Olympic tour, had been the U.S. team's only consistent hitter. She raised her batting average to a team-leading .429 today by accounting for half the team's six hits and scoring both runs.

Besides her home run, a drive into the left-field seats off Gina Weber, Brundage helped create a run in the fourth inning with a leadoff single. She went to second on Michele Smith's single, advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on Richardson's grounder to the right side.

The home run, though, was crucial to restoring the team's confidence. "When the ball left my bat, I felt just a big sense of relief, just getting that run in the first [regulation] seven innings," said Brundage, who played on two NCAA championship teams at UCLA and was an alternate on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. "It was, 'Voodoo gone.' "

Left-hander Lori Harrigan pitched 5 2/3 innings, giving up one hit and striking out eight before Christa Williams came in to earn her second save. Approaching a game that could have spelled the end of the U.S team's medal quest, Harrigan was remarkably calm.

"I felt no pressure," she said. "I went in with every confidence our team could win."

That confidence was justified, but the U.S. still faces a difficult road. First, it must defeat Italy, which was 2-3 before playing late today. Then comes the medal round.

"Everyone has talked about how we won 112 games in a row," Richardson said of the epic winning streak that ended in the tournament's third game.

"We said [during the shower ritual] we want to win five in a row. . . . Whatever it takes, we have to believe we will make a difference with the talent we have. We didn't come this far to give up."

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