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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | SOFTBALL

After Three-Game Debacle, It's Time for Big Payback

September 24, 2000|MIKE KUPPER | TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

BLACKTOWN, Australia — It was a tough fight, but they made it.

The U.S. softball team, the bunch that was going to breeze to another Olympic gold medal at Sydney 2000, instead had to battle a typhoon just to get into the medal round.

With a 6-0 victory over Italy on Saturday night in the final game of the preliminaries, the heavily favored, defending champion Americans qualified for the semifinals--as the fourth team. Unbeaten Japan, host Australia and surprising China all qualified ahead of the U.S. And had the Americans lost to the Italians, they would be on their way home.

That's what a three-game losing streak in the middle of the Olympic tournament will do to you.

Oh, and those three teams that qualified ahead of the U.S.? Those would be the three teams that have beaten the U.S. It took each of them extra innings, but no matter. In three days, the aura of invincibility spun by the Americans during a 112-game winning streak vanished. You lose three in a row, how invincible can you be?

Wait and see, suggested pitcher Lisa Fernandez, who played a major role in Saturday night's victory.

"In those three games that we did lose, I truly believe that it wasn't those teams that beat us," she said. "it was more that USA softball beat ourselves."

Right, agreed second baseman Dot Richardson.

"I think we're always on top, just from our history," she said. "And I think that the other teams are not looking forward to playing us but we're looking forward to playing them because they did beat us once and so it's appropriate, and we need, to defeat each and every one of them, to prove that we're really No. 1."

First up on the payback list is China, which handed the U.S. loss No. 2 in the streak, 2-0 in 14 innings. As the third and fourth qualifiers, they will play Monday in the second game, after Japan and Australia have played in the first.

The first-game winner goes directly into Tuesday's gold-medal game. The winner of the U.S.-China game, however, must play the Japan-Australia loser Monday night, that winner advancing to the championship game.

So if the Americans are going to repeat, they will indeed need to exact revenge from each of their tormentors.

"For us, the tournament begins on Monday, and no one's going to remember what the record of the USA team was when it comes down to the end," Fernandez said. "It's all about what we do on Monday, and then, hopefully, Monday night and again on Tuesday."

Fernandez certainly did her part in moving the U.S. into the medal round.

Starting for the second time in three days, she gave up Italy's only hit--to the second batter--but struck out the six other batters she faced. More telling, though, she hit a thunderous two-run homer in the top of the third, getting the offense back in the groove, just as Coach Ralph Raymond had hoped would happen.

"I went with what I thought was the nine best sticks in the lineup," he said. "You don't always want your pitcher hitting the ball, you want your pitcher fully concentrating on that job. But I thought, 'There's no tomorrow and I'd better go with my top sticks.' "

Once Fernandez had the Americans on their way, Christa Williams came in and slammed the door on the Italians, and Leah O'Brien-Amico's two-run single in the sixth put the game beyond Italy's reach.

"Things are starting to turn around," Richardson said. "That's the beauty, we're on a win streak."

No better time for one.

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