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Winding Up

Veterans of the U.S. softball team are savoring their final run toward gold

August 18, 2004|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — The nucleus of the U.S. softball team has been together for more than a decade now, two Olympic gold medals in hand and another one well within reach here. These veterans have won hundreds of games, and lost precious few.

Now, though, there are moments of melancholy, born of the knowledge that this is their Olympic finale.

Neither emotion nor the opposition has slowed the U.S. during the preliminary rounds, however. Through four games, the Americans are undefeated and have outscored their opponents, 24-0.

Lori Harrigan, a 6-foot-1 left-hander -- and one of those veterans doing things for "the last time" -- gave up only a leadoff bunt single in the first inning and struck out eight Tuesday as the U.S. defeated Japan, 4-0, at Helliniko Softball Stadium. The Americans have won 74 consecutive international games.

At 33, Harrigan is sure she's ready to retire from international softball to advance her career as a security supervisor at the Bellagio hotel-casino in Las Vegas. She also hopes to have children.

"My mother is pressuring me," she said, smiling.

Still, she's finding it tough to slip the bonds of her softball friendships. Harrigan, Laura Berg, Lisa Fernandez and Leah O'Brien-Amico are the last remaining players from the Olympic championship teams at Atlanta and Sydney.

"It's going to be hard to let go," Harrigan said.

"I try to keep those thoughts about doing everything for the last time to when I'm in the village or I'm in practice. Definitely off the field, because I have to keep my concentration on the field.

"I've already shed a few tears. Leah O'Brien-Amico gave me a card and gave everybody else on the team a card saying, 'Let's kick some butt.' The four of us have been together since '96. We've become sisters."

O'Brien-Amico, the U.S. first baseman, wrote nostalgic notes to each of her teammates on the plane ride to Athens because she too recognizes that this group won't be together much longer.

"I told them I cherished this time and I wanted them to know how much I respect them on and off the field," said O'Brien-Amico, whose two-out, RBI double drove in the third U.S. run against China.

"I wanted to say I absolutely believe in everyone and I want this tournament to be the best one yet."

That's asking a lot, but the U.S. has been dominating here.

Tuesday, Harrigan supplied the fourth consecutive impressive pitching effort. Only one Chinese batter reached base. Otherwise, Harrigan kept the ball down and got a steady flow of popups and grounders.

Lovieanne Jung hit a two-run single in the first inning, O'Brien-Amico added her run-scoring double in the second, then Crystl Bustos hit a home run to deep left in the fifth.

Harrigan, who'd felt uncomfortable in a relief appearance against Italy last week, said she felt looser on Tuesday. It showed.

"She had great command and was getting ahead of hitters," Coach Mike Candrea said. "She was jamming a lot of hitters and keeping hitters we wanted away, away."

Despite her veteran status, Harrigan wasn't sure she'd be in Athens after Candrea decided to deploy a four-pitcher rotation, one fewer than Ralph Raymond used in guiding the U.S. to gold at Atlanta and Sydney. Harrigan doesn't play another position and doesn't bat.

"So that makes it harder," she said. "I worry about making the team every year. I've been playing on the national team since '92 and I never took it for granted. If I did, I probably wouldn't be there."

And it wouldn't be so hard to leave.



Mowing Them Down

With a shutout in each of its first four games, the U.S. softball pitching staff is even more dominant than in two previous gold-medal runs. The U.S. pitchers' record through four games:

*--* Player IP H BB SO Cat Osterman 8.2 1 1 13 Lori Harrigan 8.1 4 1 11 Lisa Fernandez 5.0 1 1 0 Jennie Finch 3.0 0 1 5 Team 25.0 6 4 29


The averages per seven innings for the U.S. pitching staffs in the previous two Olympics:

*--* Year H BB SO ERA 2000 1.8 1.1 10.2 0.15 1996 2.9 1.0 10.2 0.62


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