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U.S. Still Thinking Gold After Nuveman's Homer


BLACKTOWN, Australia — A loss to China today would have ended their reign as Olympic champions and sent them packing, with many regrets and no medal. Members of the U.S. softball team simply refused to consider the possibility. They weren't ready to surrender yet.

"I really don't think that ever crossed our minds to ponder upon," Lisa Fernandez said. "All we're going to do is keep up the fight."

That determination was the foundation for a victory that guaranteed them at least a bronze medal and kept alive their hopes of winning gold again.

Stacey Nuveman's three-run home run to left with one out in the bottom of the 10th inning gave the U.S. a 3-0 semifinal victory over China at the Blacktown Softball Center, capping the team's rebirth from the ashes of a three-game losing streak and sending them to the bronze medal game late today against Australia. The winner will play Japan Tuesday night for the gold medal.

Japan, the top team in preliminary-round play, defeated Australia, 1-0, in today's first semifinal to improve to 8-0 and earn a bye into the gold medal game.

For the U.S. (5-3), the euphoric ending against China awakened echoes of its 1996 victory over China in the gold medal game at Atlanta. Chinese players and Coach Liu Yaming protested that Nuveman's home run today was foul, just as the Chinese protested Dot Richardson's game-winning home run in 1996. Again, their protests were futile.

"I could see that this may be some problem," said Liu, whose team finished fourth with a 5-3 record. "I think that part was very hard to decide. It is not a very clear-cut ball. . . . I did express my views [to the umpires] but it was decided this way. I think I have to accept that."

Said U.S. Coach Ralph Raymond: "It was ironic that it happened this way. . . . Ernie really got into the ball. I call Stacey 'Ernie,' like Ernie Lombardi, with Cincinnati years ago."

Like Lombardi, Nuveman is more muscular than sleek and is far from the fastest runner in the world. But in the 10th inning, she didn't have to be swift. Besides, she fully expected her drive to clear the fence in left and began pumping her first in exultation after taking a few steps up the first-base line.

"I had a hunch it would stay fair," said Nuveman, who was three for 23 before her home run. "It's nice to get it done in dramatic fashion, but base hits work as well.

"We've got to keep chucking 'em along and staying alive."

For the U.S., avenging its 2-0 round-robin loss to China wasn't easy.

As in their first encounter, China pitcher Zhang Yanqing was dominant, holding the U.S. to three hits and striking out eight. She walked only two batters, but one was Sheila Douty, who scored ahead of Nuveman; the home run also scored Jennifer Brundage, who started the inning on second base in accordance with international softball rules designed to break ties.

The U.S. team was saved by its hitting and defense, although both were inconsistent earlier in the tournament and were the causes of their first-ever three-game losing streak. In addition to excelling at the plate, Nuveman excelled behind the plate, initiating pickoffs of leadoff runners at first base in the second and seventh innings.

"You just read the situation," said Nuveman, who is from La Verne and plays for UCLA. "When runners are taking aggressive leads, we'll take what we can get."

China never got a runner to third, coming close only in the ninth inning after an error and a walk. But Deng Xiaoling hit a grounder to third that Fernandez turned into an unusual double play: creeping toward the plate in anticipation of a bunt, Fernandez fielded the ball cleanly and flipped to shortstop Crystl Bustos of Canyon Country for the force at third. Bustos, who has good fielding range and an exceptional arm, rifled a throw to first to end the inning.

U.S. starter Michele Smith gave up five hits and struck out 10 in eight innings before being relieved by Christa Williams, who held China hitless and allowed one walk.

In three starts covering 27 2/3 innings, Smith has given up nine hits and three unearned runs and has 37 strikeouts--but she didn't get the decision and is 0-2.

"I'm not frustrated," she said. "It would be nice to have three or four wins, but the only thing that matters is the color of the medal. Who wins doesn't matter as long as we get to the podium together."

They've gotten further than might have been expected during their three-game losing streak, which ended a 112-game winning streak. As they see it, their newest winning streak is at three and counting, following victories in their last two round-robin games and defeating China.

"The beauty of this is our heart and our fight," Nuveman said. "Other teams, after three losses, might have said, 'Maybe they're better than us.' We didn't."

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