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ATHENS 2004

U.S. Softball Has That Perfect Mix

Americans produce third consecutive shutout, taking advantage of errors to beat Japan, 3-0, in extra innings.

August 17, 2004|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Lovieanne Jung wasn't about to give in. Not with the U.S. softball team's perfect record and its pride on the line.

Jung's patience during a 17-pitch at-bat symbolized the team's evolution from pitching-rich and power-dependent to resourceful and versatile. Battling winds that topped 30 mph and the baffling offerings of Japanese pitcher Juri Takayama, Jung feared she'd extinguished a promising opportunity when she hit a popup behind third.

She got a reprieve, though, when third baseman Reika Utsugi lost the ball in the sun, then took advantage and drew a walk, putting U.S. runners on first and third.

Both eventually scored in a 3-0 extra-inning U.S. victory Monday at the Helliniko Softball Stadium, extending the defending gold medalists' record to 3-0.

"I heard the bench cheering, so I turned around and saw the ball on the ground," said Jung, of Fountain Valley. "I took a deep breath because I knew I had another chance."

The U.S. was held hitless by Takayama through seven innings, but U.S. starter Cat Osterman was nearly as stingy, yielding one hit and striking out 11. Following international softball's tiebreaking rule, the U.S. started the eighth inning with a runner on second, Coach Mike Candrea sending Amanda Freed in to run for the slow-footed Lisa Fernandez. Stacey Nuveman surprised Japan's infielders with a bunt up the third base line, moving Freed to third and bringing up Jung.

Adjusting to the varying speed and spin Takayama put on the ball, Jung patiently fought off pitch after pitch.

"She's my roommate, so I know how stubborn she is," said right fielder Kelly Kretschman, whose sacrifice fly scored Freed from third.

Jessica Mendoza of Camarillo followed with the first U.S. hit, rapping a single over Takayama's glove. That moved Jung to second, and she scored on a single to right by pinch-hitter Jenny Topping. Right fielder Yumi Iwabuchi misplayed the ball, allowing Mendoza to take third, and Mendoza scored on Natasha Watley's infield single.

The run support was gratefully received by Osterman, a 21-year-old left-hander from Houston. She acknowledged feeling shaky in her first start, though she'd pitched two-thirds of an inning in the team's opener last Saturday. However, she showed no signs of nerves in the bottom of the eighth. Japan began its half of the inning with a runner on second, again following international rules, but Osterman pitched a perfect inning to end the game.

"It was a little less nerve-racking to go on defense with a 3-0 lead," she said.

The U.S. team seems to have little reason to be nervous, having defeated Italy, Australia and Japan by an aggregate 20-0. But as it learned at Sydney, where it lost three round-robin games and barely squeaked into the medal round, nothing is a lock.

"This sets us up pretty well, that we beat Japan and Australia," Jung said. "We hadn't seen them in a year or two. It's a good thing for our pitchers and defense to see them before the medal round."

Said Kretschman: "It's an incredible feeling, and we're on such a high we could play games continuously."

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