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Japan pushes hard, but U.S. reaches gold-medal game

August 20, 2008|Melissa Isaacson | Chicago Tribune

BEIJING -- The three-time defending gold medalists have spent the better part of what could be the sport's last Olympic appearance trying to talk up their opposition and convince the world that although the U.S. may be dominant in softball, the sport is still competitive.

That was unnecessary in today's semifinals.

The U.S. had its toughest battle yet against a Japanese team it defeated in Sydney in 2000 and escaped in extra innings in Athens in 2004.

It went to extras again today, before the U.S. broke it open with four runs in the top of the ninth, the winning hit delivered by Crystl Bustos, a three-run home run for a 4-1 victory to move into Thursday's gold-medal game.

It was the Americans' 19th straight victory. They have now outscored their opponents 57-2 in this tournament and 108-3 over the last two Olympics.

Caitlin Lowe opened the ninth-inning rally by driving in Natasha Watley with a single up the middle. Jessica Mendoza followed with a walk. Watley, the previous inning's last batter, had begun the inning on second base per international rules to speed up play.

Bustos, tied for the team lead with four runs in the tournament, launched a home run about 250 feet into the left-field stands.

Cat Osterman relieved winning pitcher Monica Abbott with one out in the bottom of the ninth after Japan scored a run. Osterman retired the side to secure the win.

Held scoreless through the five innings -- the longest it has gone without scoring in the tournament -- the U.S. appeared to be mounting a rally in the top of the sixth when Tairia Flowers led off with a single and with one out, Lowe was hit by a pitch to put two runners on with one out.

But the next batter, left fielder Mendoza, hit a shot to Japan's third baseman Megu Hirose, who then fired to first to double off Lowe to end the inning.

Abbott was strong through six. But she surrendered her first walk in the bottom of the seventh, then gave up a single to first baseman Rie Sato to put the winning run in scoring position with two out.

Abbott then got perhaps her biggest strikeout when she fanned Hirose to force the game into extra innings.

Under the Olympic softball playoff system, the U.S. advances to the gold-medal game while Japan still has a chance to play for gold if it can defeat the winner of the semifinal between Australia and Canada later today.

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