BLACKTOWN, Australia — If the measure of a great team is how it responds to adversity, then the U.S. women's softball team has already triumphed. The gold medal it can earn today by defeating Japan would be mostly for show, a token of the difficult truths players learned the past week about the paralyzing power of self-doubt and the liberating power of teamwork.
Dot Richardson's two-out, run-scoring single in the fifth inning against Australia provided all the offense pitcher Lisa Fernandez needed Monday, propelling the U.S. to a 1-0 victory over Australia at the Blacktown Softball Center and the sweetest redemption imaginable. A three-game losing streak had tested them and threatened to keep them from defending the gold medal they won at Atlanta. Though they may have bent, they never broke.
"We faced a challenge that we never imagined, and for us it was a nightmare," Richardson said. "But you wake up from nightmares, and we woke up in time."
After winning the first two games of this tournament, the U.S. lost extra-inning games to Japan, China and Australia in succession; victories in its last two preliminary-round games and its 10-inning, 3-0 victory over China earlier Monday put them back on track toward the gold-medal game. Defeating Australia was the next huge task, and Fernandez was equal to it, pitching a 13-strikeout one-hitter.
She could even smile that the last two batters she faced Monday were Peta Edebone, whose 13th-inning home run beat the U.S. last Thursday, 2-1, and Joanne Brown, whose game-winning home run in a 1996 round-robin contest ended Fernandez's perfect game bid in the 10th inning. Monday, she retired Edebone on a grounder to third baseman Jennifer Brundage and got Brown--Fernandez's former UCLA teammate--to chop the ball back to the pitcher's circle.
"How ironic it was to face them again," Fernandez said. "I just kept saying, 'Oh, God, I'm trusting in you. Please make these the best pitches I've thrown in this game.' . . .
"I had a sleepless night after that last start [against Australia]. But I really, truly have been as challenged as I could possibly be as an athlete, and Dot has been a tremendous help psychologically, saying, 'Lisa, why would you play this sport if it wasn't a challenge?' I really had to put it behind me if we were going to go on."
Fernandez, who has given up one earned run and four hits in 21 2/3 innings and has struck out 44, made some subtle adjustments Monday. Realizing getting the ball up had hurt her last week against Australia, she kept it down Monday even though that meant losing some velocity. Her strategy worked: Australia--which won the bronze medal--got the ball out of the infield only once, on a single to right-center by former UCLA standout Kerry Dienelt.
"Lisa did a great job keeping the ball low, so they were hitting it into the ground," Richardson said. "Australia should keep their heads high. We've beaten a great competitor."
Richardson proved her own competitive fires still burn hot. Relegated to less than full-time status, she had struggled at the plate but decided Monday to move up in the batter's box to get a better look at the drop ball of Australia pitcher Kelly Hardie. She got two hits, the second scoring pinch-runner Jennifer McFalls to set up the gold-medal matchup with Japan (8-0), which had the top preliminary-round record and got a bye to the grand final after defeating Australia on Monday morning.
"I cannot tell you how much adversity this team has overcome," Richardson said. "We got ourselves into a hole and it was a great challenge."
Said Michele Smith, who pitched eight scoreless innings against China on Monday afternoon and was the designated hitter Monday night against Australia: "The most important thing is we beat those two teams when it counted. They can beat us in round-robin--we don't care as long as we win when it counts."
The U.S. manufactured its run against Australia. Catcher Stacey Nuveman, who had hit the three-run home run that beat China hours earlier, hit a two-out grounder that skipped under the foot of shortstop Natalie Ward for an error. McFalls ran for Nuveman and advanced to second when Leah O'Brien-Amico beat out a bouncer to third.
Richardson rapped a single up the middle, and although center fielder Simmone Morrow dropped it as she tried to pick it up, McFalls probably would have scored even if Morrow had fielded it cleanly.
"The runner had a good jump," Australia Coach Bob Crudgington said. "I haven't seen a play made there all week. . . . We were able to hang on, and we defended. We worked hard with the bat but couldn't score. For a minor sport in Australia, our girls have done very well."
The U.S. team has done well. It hopes to do better.
Coach Ralph Raymond wouldn't identify his pitcher for today's game--he jokingly said Greg Maddux will start--but it's likely to be Fernandez. She wants the ball; so does Smith, who lost to Japan in relief last Tuesday. "If I have to be the water girl, I'll do that to help this team," Smith said. "One of the things I'm most proud about of this team is we had the courage not to give up. We've battled every pitch, every inning."