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Softball Team Has a Humble Pitch

U.S. women say they're wary of the competition, even though they go into a semifinal unbeaten.

August 22, 2004|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — The U.S. women's softball team, as much a lock for a gold medal as any Olympic team since Michael Jordan's Dream Team in Barcelona, has been extraordinary in its togetherness. And not just on the field of play.

From the beginning of an event that is contested with seven preliminary games leading to a four-team playoff today and Monday, this team of Olympic veterans has been uniform in one theme: The U.S. needs to be aware that the rest of the world is catching up fast in this sport.

So similar are their answers about this theme in news conferences and mixed zones that reporters need to make sure lips are really moving and that somebody isn't playing a prerecorded statement.

Nevertheless, it will be stunning if that theme holds any water come Monday, when the likelihood is that the U.S. team will stand on the top medal platform and listen to the "Star Spangled Banner."

The unbeaten and unscored-upon U.S. team is seeded No. 1 for the playoffs and takes on No. 2 Australia in the gold-medal qualifying game today. The Aussies were clobbered, 10-0, by the Americans in a preliminary game that was stopped by a mercy rule. The winner waits to see who comes back to play for the gold on Monday. The winner of No. 4 China and No. 3 Japan plays the loser of U.S.-Australia later Sunday. The loser of that game gets the bronze and the winner plays for the gold.

The scores of U.S. victories over Japan and China were 3-0 and 4-0. Japan and China, as well as Taiwan, were distinguished by their ability to make the American team play regulation, seven-inning games. Three other teams besides Australia -- Greece, Italy and Canada -- were asked to leave the field after five innings, trailing by seven or more runs.

So where is this "catching up" by the rest of the world? Maybe in the minds, and psychological approaches, of the U.S. team, which is carrying on a tradition of a program that has been ranked No. 1 in the world for the last 18 years and has won the gold medal the previous two times the sport has been contested at the Summer Games, in Atlanta and Sydney.

Lisa Fernandez, the former UCLA star who, at 33, pounded the theme all last week, just as she pounded opposing pitchers to set an Olympic batting average record of .546 for preliminary-round games.

"There are no easy games out here, no easy teams," she said, day after day.

So, barring an incredible reversal of form, all the next two days of medal rounds in softball will prove is that the U.S. team has not only been successful in competition, but in reverse psychology.

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