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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

U.S. Rally for the Gold Is Good to Last Drop

Softball: Americans complete comeback from three-game losing streak by beating Japan in eight innings, 2-1.

September 27, 2000|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BLACKTOWN, Australia — They ran through the chilly evening downpour as joyously as if the sun were beaming down on them from a cloudless sky, waving American flags, hugging each other and pointing their index fingers heavenward.

There would be no raining on the U.S. softball team's parade Tuesday night, not after it had overcome so many obstacles and earned the right to wave the Stars and Stripes during that improbable victory lap around soggy Blacktown Softball Center.

Forgotten were the fielding errors that contributed to the end of their 112-game winning streak, the three consecutive extra-inning preliminary-round losses that had pushed them to the brink of elimination and the 74 runners they had left on base in nine games. When Laura Berg's fly ball popped out of left fielder Shiori Koseki's glove to score Jennifer McFalls with the decisive run in an eight-inning, 2-1 victory over Japan on Tuesday, the U.S. won its second successive Olympic gold medal--and gained the greater gift of knowing what it means to compete on a level playing field and prevail by relying on wits and heart as often as abundant talent.

"We kept believing in ourselves, and everyone went up to the plate believing they were going to get a hit," said pitcher-designated hitter Michele Smith, one of eight returning members from the triumphant 1996 Atlanta team. "We just battled all the way. It's incredible. After we dropped three games, I don't think anybody thought we could come back and stand on the highest spot on that [medal] platform. We persevered and dug deep. We really have character.

"In '96 we were favored to win. This team, well, after we lost those games, no one expected us to win. You can tell a champion by how it handles adversity. And we sure had plenty of adversity."

Pitcher Lisa Fernandez of Long Beach and UCLA, the daughter of a Cuban father and Puerto Rican mother, sang the national anthem during the postgame medal ceremony as heartily as anyone has ever voiced it.

"I really thought of my father," she said, her voice cracking. "He came over in the '60s . . . as a political refugee. He came to provide for his family. And here I am, representing my country.

"We are really free. There's no dictatorship. To be able to hear the anthem and know I fought for my country the best way I know how, on the softball field, it was overwhelming."

From bad luck to bad weather, the U.S. fought the elements to the very end, yet managed to defeat all three teams it had lost to in round-robin play.

With Fernandez admittedly struggling as she plowed through 15 innings in two days, the U.S. was at a psychological disadvantage Tuesday. It was at a statistical disadvantage too, after Japanese third baseman Reika Utsugi led off the fourth inning by sitting on a changeup and pounding it deep to center field, barely over Berg's head and over the fence. But Fernandez, mixing off-speed pitches of 44 mph with her usual 61- to 63-mph offerings, stemmed the damage at one run on three hits in sending Japan to its first defeat in nine games.

"The kid is a gamer," Coach Ralph Raymond said. "If I had to come back tomorrow night, she could go again."

Her teammates rewarded her gritty effort by scratching out a run in the fifth. Smith was hit by a pitch with one out and moved to second on Sheila Douty's grounder to the right side. She scored on a single to right-center by Stacey Nuveman, who had hit the three-run home run against China on Monday afternoon that kept the U.S. team's repeat hopes alive.

"Dot [Richardson] gets the game-winning hit [Monday night against Australia] and then Nuvey and then Berg," Fernandez said. "Everybody was part of it."

Berg, who thought she should have caught Utsugi's home run and insisted, "I owed Lisa one," came to bat in the eighth just as an intense thunderstorm passed through this western Sydney suburb and threatened to halt play. Nuveman, of La Verne, had led off the inning with a walk off reliever Juri Takayama, a teammate of Smith's in the Japanese League. McFalls was sent in to run for Nuveman; after Leah O'Brien-Amico couldn't bunt McFalls over, Richardson also walked.

Berg, who started the game batting .176 and was hitless in her first three at-bats, lofted a 1-and-1 pitch to left. Berg thought Koseki would catch it.

"She went back pretty well on the ball," said Berg, of Santa Fe Springs. "It was in her glove and it popped out. I was thinking hit, thinking hit. She was playing shallow on me."

Koseki had it in her glove but lost the ball as she fell backward. McFalls, an alternate on the 1996 U.S. team, scurried home ahead of the rain, touching off a wild celebration and a pileup of U.S. players at home plate before they ran off for their victory lap. Apparently, winning an Olympic softball gold medal is among the many events in life that are sweeter the second time around.

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