Originally created 08/24/04

Almost flawless, U.S. wins third softball gold



ATHENS, Greece -- They are America's newest golden girls - powerful and just a shade from perfection.

The U.S. softball team won its third straight gold medal with an unprecedented and nearly unblemished romp through the Olympics, capped by a 5-1 victory Monday over an Australian team, that, like the rest of softball's elite, never had a chance.

The Americans zeroed in on a gold medal, and were four outs from a tournament-long shutout before the Aussies scored a run - the first given up by the U.S. pitching staff in 54 2-3 innings.

One minor flaw on an otherwise perfect run on the game's grandest diamond.

Women's softball has never been played better.

Lisa Fernandez pitched a four-hitter and Crystl Bustos homered twice in the Americans' best all-around game of the tournament. Under the burning Greek sun and in swirling wind, the U.S. team pounded three home runs off Aussie ace Tanya Harding.

They moved over runners. They played stingy defense. They did everything right while thrilling 5,000 fans unlikely ever to see a team as good as this red-white-blue Dream Team of power and speed.

"Our whole team came together today," said Bustos, a two-time Olympian. "The bunting, the people getting on base, the hard-hit balls. Our defense was there. You can't beat it. The pitching was phenomenal. It's the best Olympic team I ever played on."

And maybe the best one ever assembled.

These Yankees, minus the payroll and pinstripes, were simply awesome.

"This is the greatest feeling in the world," said outfielder Kelly Kretschman. "We made it look easy but every game was tough."

Bustos homered twice off Harding, and the United States completed a three-game sweep of the silver medal-winning Aussies, the only team in the same class as the Americans in these games.

The United States outscored Australia 20-1 in the three-game sweep and finished the nine-game tournament by outscoring the field 51-1. The run total was just one of more than a dozen Olympic records that fell to the mighty U.S. squad.

After getting the final out, Fernandez flung her glove high into the air and was swarmed by her teammates, who piled on one after another as if they were attempting to build a pyramid in the dirt.

The Americans are leaving Greece with what they came for: a gold medal for themselves, their country and a "team mom" who couldn't be there to share it.

A month before the Olympics, Sue Candrea, the wife of U.S. coach Mike Candrea, died of a brain aneurysm while traveling with the team on its "Aiming for Athens" tour. She quit her job to join her husband of 28 years.

She rode the buses with the All-American girls, went for coffee with them and provided companionship on the road while they chased their dream of Greek gold.

The players honored Sue Candrea by wearing "SC" decals on their batting helmets and wristbands. She was always in their hearts.

Until the final with Australia, the Americans' stiffest test - and only test - came in the preliminary round against Japan, the bronze medalist which forced the United States into extra innings and the excruciating international tiebreaker.

In the eighth inning of that game, the Americans caught a break when third baseman Reika Utsugi lost an easy popup in the sun, giving the United States an extra out that seemed heaven sent.

"Sue was looking down upon us," Candrea said at the time.

She was in their thoughts as they celebrated the medal.

After sharing hugs with his coaching staff, Candrea walked onto the field to join his players. The first to meet him was Leah O'Brien-Amico, the only mother on the 15-woman roster, who wrapped her arms around her Olympic and college coach.

Moments later, the entire U.S. team surrounded Candrea and lifted him into the air.

"It's been definitely an emotional thing for coach and it's definitely an emotional thing for the team," Bustos said. "Sue was with us the whole way."

As happened in their first eight games, the ball bounced the U.S. team's way. That wasn't how it went four years ago in Sydney, when the Americans had to rally after losing three straight games just to make the medal round.

They won gold, but it wasn't easy. This was.

Even when an opposing batter hit a ball hard, it seemed to find a U.S. glove. In the third, Kerry Wyborn rocketed one only to have it snatched by Fernandez, who simply flicked her wrist and stared at the yellow ball.

Bustos hit a two-run homer in the first and added solo shot on Harding's first pitch of the third, a towering shot over the left-field wall that landed 320 feet away in the sand next to one of the old runway strips at Hellinikon Airport.

One out later, Stacey Nuveman homered off Harding, who was lifted by coach Simon Roskvist.

After giving up the ball and walking to the dugout, Harding laughed about what had just happened - another pitcher overwhelmed by the U.S. team's might.

Harding, the only pitcher ever to beat the United States twice in Olympic play, came into the game 4-0 with four shutouts over 33 innings in the tournament. The Americans took care of that in their first at-bat.

O'Brien-Amico singled with one out and Bustos, the most feared power hitter in women's softball, followed by driving a 1-1 pitch over the wall in center to make it 2-0. As she rounded first, Bustos pumped her strong arms in the air as the U.S. dugout emptied to greet her.

Fernandez and Nuveman hit singles that kept the pressure on Harding, and Kretschman singled through the pitching circle.

After sliding across the plate with a headfirst slide, Fernandez jumped to her feet with both fists clenched and the front of her blue warmup jacket streaked with the white lime marking the batter's box.

About two hours later, she got dirty again under an avalanche of American jerseys.

"It's great," Natasha Watley said. "It feels so good right now, to finally have it said and done."