SYDNEY - If the last one was only an irritant, this one could be a major impedement. While the first time an inevitable victory was merely diluted, this time one might have been dismissed.
Australia beat the United States in another important softball game Thursday, just as they did four years ago, stealing an impossible win with a big hit off a pitcher who until the final inning had been unhittable. Peta Edebone hit a two-run home run with two outs in the 13th inning to lead the Aussies to a 2-1 win in pool play at the 2000 Olympics and Lisa Fernandez back to an oddly familiar misery.
The ace of the American pitching staff had allowed only one hit while striking out an Olympic-record 25 batters before Edebone's blast over the left-field fence at the Blacktown Olympic Centre. She was also beaten by Australia on a home run in their final at-bat in the Atlanta Games.
But that was the only loss in 1996 for a U.S. team that otherwise rolled to a gold medal. This one could jeopardize America's softball medal hopes.
After winning 112 straight games, the U.S. has now lost three straight in the Olympic tournament and will have to win its next two just to reach the medal round. The heavy pre-tournament favorites are now in fourth place in the eight-team field.
"That was kind of ironic that it happened again," said U.S. coach Ralph Raymond. "(Fernandez) is a gamer and a champion at heart. I'm sure she'll rebound from this. But it's a tough situation to have to go through the same type of ballgame in Atlanta and here."
There is nothing familiar about the position the Americans are in now, though.
Having lost three straight games for the first time in international play, the U.S. will need five straight wins, three against teams that have already beaten them in Sydney, to defend their Olympic title. But, more than anything at the moment, they need to find a way out of the worst slump in U.S. Olmypic softball history.
They had only five hits Thursday and had gone 39 innings without a run until Christie Ambrosi's two-out single in the top of the 13th scored Michele Smith to put the U.S. ahead 1-0. Through five games in the Olympics, only three U.S. batters have more than four hits and the team has managed only 11 runs.
"It's like this voodoo that's on us right now," said Ambrosi. "We're like, 'it can't last this long.'
"Nobody is going up there thinking they're not going to get a hit. We're just not getting any right now."
This game did not just extend America's temporary slump, though. It was also an effective rebuttal to the popular argument that excessive hitting is ruining baseball. Because it showed too little might not be good for softball, as an extra-inning game between rivals was basically uneventful until the end.
The teams struck out a total of 43 times. Eight different players whiffed three times or more. Edebone's homer was only the second hit for Australia, while the final five batters in their lineup totaled 15 strikeouts and three balls hit in play.
But it was the American's inability to hit that has dropped them to 2-3 in the tournament.
"You've got to score runs to win them," said Raymond. "You look down our bench and it's tough to come in without the kind of sticks you would like to have. We just don't have the sticks on our bench."
Australia, however, keeps sticking it to Fernandez.
After Joanne Brown hit the home run to beat the U.S. in Atlanta, Fernandez received an anonymous postcard, postmarked from Australia, with a picture of the hit on it. Thursday Edebone gave another unpleasant picture.
Uunder Olympic softball rules, teams start every inning after the ninth with a runner on second base, but it seemed Australia's freebie would not be going too far. Fernandez retired Ward on a grounder to short and got Brown to ground to second to move the U.S. within one out of victory. But after a first-pitch ball to Edebone, she threw a drop ball that didn't drop until it cleared the fence.
"It was supposed to be down and in and she got under it," said Fernandez . "Obviously, it was not in the location I would have liked it to be. I made a mistake. I made two mistakes in the game. I got away with one, but I didn't get away with the other.
"In Atlanta, we won the gold medal anyway. And if this is the situation I have to be in to win again, I'll take this game and give me the gold medal." It might not be that simple now.
Because, if the last one was a postcard, this one could have been a deeper message to the U.S.