BEIJING – Losing for the first time since 2000, the U.S. softball team was denied a chance for a fourth straight gold medal Thursday, beaten 3-1 by Japan in the sport’s last appearance in the Olympics for at least eight years – and maybe for good.
Yukiko Ueno, Japan’s remarkably resilient right-hander, shut down the Americans and handed them their first loss since Sept. 21, 2000 at the Sydney Games. The U.S. had won 22 straight since then, most of them with outrageously lopsided scores.
Another gold was certainly within reach. Instead, they walked off Fengtai Field with their heads bowed.
The U.S. team never led and made two uncharacteristic errors in the seventh inning to help the Japanese add an important insurance run – one they didn’t even need.
When Caitlin Lowe grounded to third for the final out, Vicky Galindo, who led off the U.S. team’s seventh inning with a pinch-hit single, wrapped her hands over her helmet and cringed.
Moments later, U.S. coach Mike Candrea huddled his stunned players, many of whom couldn’t even look up. Lowe choked back tears as slugger Crystl Bustos tried to console her overwhelmed teammates.
Bustos, who homered in the fourth for the Americans’ only run, was first in line to congratulate the Japanese players. As she shook hands with the U.S. team, Japan catcher Yukiyo Mine was overcome by tears.
“You don’t want it to end this way, but it’s all we could do,” said Bustos, who attended the medal ceremony wearing sunglasses.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to end for the Americans, who had lost just four of 36 in Olympic play.
Not this team. Not this time. Not this tournament.
The U.S. has dominated the sport since its Olympic debut in 1996, winning all three golds, rewriting the record books and setting a new standard for a sport considered too All-American by some.
It was the Americans’ utter domination – they outscored the field 51-1 four years ago in Greece – that may have contributed to the International Olympic Committee’s decision to drop the sport in a close vote taken in 2005.
The U.S arrived in China determined to put on a show of power, precision and poise. And except for a tense, nine-inning win over Ueno and Japan in the semifinals, the Americans had done just that.
But Ueno, one of the few players in the field who could win a roster spot on the U.S. squad, stopped the Americans cold on a cool, drizzly night.
Except for Bustos’ homer, Ueno was in command. She was able to escape a pair of one-out, bases-loaded situations to keep the American scoring machine in check. And needing three outs in the seventh, her shortstop raced into foul territory to snag a pop up by Tairia Flowers and then her third baseman backhanded Natasha Watley’s hot smash.