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|Japanese ace Yukiko Ueno is playing like the No. 1 pitcher and power pitcher in the world.|
There is no sugarcoating the reality that international softball faces an uncertain future as long as it remains lost in the Olympic wilderness, a game in need of an audience suffering without a place on the biggest sports stage.
But for now, for at least one day on the edge of real wilderness in Canada's Yukon Territory, softball tried to show the London Olympics that those Games will miss softball more than it misses the pomp and circumstance. If you want athletes competing for nothing more than pride in a flag and passion for a sport, well, that's all the ISF World Championship had to offer, as softball's remaining major international event tried to fill the Olympic vacuum.
Good luck finding a better rivalry in London than that between Japan and the United States in softball.
Good luck producing more memorable efforts with gold up for grabs than those in Sunday's championship game.
Good luck crowning a better champion than Japan, which beat the United States 2-1 in 10 innings in a gold-medal thriller that broke a streak of seven consecutive titles for the Americans. The win earned Japan its second world title, but its first since 1970 and the first won away from home. Add it to the Olympic gold Japan won by stunning the United States in 2008 and the nation has captured two of the past three major international titles.
On the same day the ISF stole the spotlight from its own tournament by announcing it would join with baseball to try and gain Olympic reinstatement in 2020, a bid that has almost nothing to do with softball and likely hinges entirely on Major League Baseball committing its players, the sport of softball was in good hands in Whitehorse, specifically those belonging to Japanese ace Yukiko Ueno and emerging American star Keilani Ricketts.
In throwing 17 innings and more than 200 pitches in two starts on her 30th birthday, Ueno reprised the role she played in the last Olympics, again almost single-handedly leading Japan from the brink of elimination to the top of the podium. There she pitched 28 innings over two days, including 19 innings in two games against the United States, to overcome an early medal-round loss. Needing to beat Australia on Sunday afternoon just to make the evening's final after losing to the United States in extra innings on Saturday, Ueno went the distance in a 2-0 win, rested for perhaps half an hour, an hour at most, then returned to the circle against Team USA.
"She's a consummate professional," United States coach Ken Eriksen said. "She reminds me a lot of how Lisa Fernandez used to take care of herself, pitching-wise, physically and mentally, and how Jennie Finch took care of herself physically and mentally and how [Cat] Osterman took care of herself physically and mentally when they were in the national program. She's a competitor and a half. She's very relentless. ... She has brute force, and she's not afraid to use it. The last time I saw a pitcher that used the brute force when she was at the top of her game and could compete at any level was probably Monica Abbott back in 2010.
"Right now, Ueno, you definitely have to give the nod to as being the No. 1 pitcher and power pitcher in the world."
Waiting for her was Ricketts, the rising senior at Oklahoma and reigning college player of the year who pitched the final inning (plus one pitch) in Saturday's win.
Both pitchers staked claims to dominance early in the final. After a leadoff single by Japan's Eri Yamada in the top of the first, Ricketts struck out the next three batters, matching her total from five innings of only moderately effective work against the same opponent in the final of the Canadian Open, a warm-up tournament contested earlier in July. The southpaw who seemed headed for a college national championship with Oklahoma until rain and Alabama conspired in her undoing in the final game of Women's College World Series never looked flustered on this day. Japan put a runner in scoring position just twice in the first seven innings.
"Just one of the gutsiest performances I've seen her have in a couple of years," Eriksen said of Ricketts. "If you took the first three innings of the College World Series on the final day before the rains came, I thought that's what she did in all 10 innings. It was just really, really great stuff."
But Ueno was every bit her equal, even after throwing nearly 100 pitches to beat Australia. Team USA managed to put just one runner in scoring position through seven innings, a bouncing single from Amanda Chidester and an infield single from Christi Orgeron their only hits in regulation. At 30, Ueno might not throw quite as hard as she did four years ago, but she is still a power pitcher with few peers who pounds the strike zone as relentlessly.
After seven innings, the pitchers were tied and everyone else was scrambling to catch up in the 0-0 game.
International softball employs the tiebreaker rule in which a runner is placed on second base to begin each team's turn at the plate in extra innings, even in the championship game. It's the equivalent of going directly to penalty kicks without extra time in a soccer final, but it did create one of the more dramatic finishes in championship history Sunday, the United States twice escaping disaster at the last second.
With one out and the tiebreaker runner still on second base for Japan in the top of the eighth, Yamada launched a ball deep to center field. Japan had not hit a home run in this world championship, but it was Yamada whose home run in the gold-medal game in the Olympics paved the way for that upset. In this instance, Team USA outfielder Michelle Moultrie arrived at the fence at the same time as the ball and reached over to snare the would-be two-run homer. In the bottom of the inning, the Americans had a runner on third with one out but were unable to bring her home after a fly out by Sam Fischer was too shallow for the runner to tag and a strikeout from Christi Orgeron.
Japan finally broke the stalemate in the top of the ninth, Maki Furuta's single driving home tiebreaker runner Misato Kawano after a sacrifice bunt moved Kawano to third. In the bottom of the inning, Moultrie's sacrifice moved tiebreaker runner Orgeron to third, but despite a 10-pitch at-bat that featured six consecutive two-strike foul balls, Stacy May-Johnson was unable to score Orgeron in recording the second out. Down in the count after two quick strikes with two outs, Lauren Gibson hit a single on the seventh pitch of her at-bat to tie the game. For the second baseman, it was one more line on a growing resume of clutch hits. It was Gibson who tied the Canadian Open final with a late home run, Japan eventually winning in extra innings, and it was Gibson who hit a home run in the first inning and drove in a run in the eighth inning of Saturday's 3-1 win against Japan.
The run Team USA couldn't escape came in the top of the 10th, Haruna Sakamoto scoring from third on a bunt when May-Johnson's flip to the plate arrived half a beat too late for the forceout. It was a well-executed bit of short-game play from the Japanese, but if there is second-guessing to come out of the game for the Americans, it will come from the fact that it wasn't Ricketts who threw the pitch. After recording the first out of the inning on a sacrifice bunt, she was replaced by Jackie Traina, who was replaced two batters later by Chelsea Thomas, who was herself replaced by Ricketts for the final out.
Traina did nothing wrong in her stint, which included the eventual winning run scoring, but the outcome makes it easy to wonder why Ricketts was pulled in the first place.
"Ricketts is predominantly a down-ball pitcher, and it was a suicide squeeze situation, and we were trying to get a rise ball to get it popped up," Eriksen said. "[Misa Okubo] actually stayed on top of the rise ball really well off of Jackie. Unfortunately it was one of those balls that it was just a second too late to get the play at the plate. ... The disappointing part was we weren't able to push across another run, and we weren't able to push across another run in the bottom of the eighth inning when we had a chance to kill it and end the game right there. They executed well today, and we could have executed a lot better offensively."
When Eriksen, a longtime college coach at South Florida and former men's fastpitch player, took over the national program prior to the summer of 2011, he did so knowing it wasn't the same job held by his predecessors. The players known to the general public were gone, names like Jessica Mendoza, Finch and Osterman, either retired or committed to strengthening National Pro Fastpitch, the domestic professional league in the United States. For that matter, even the names known to softball fans were gone, young players like Eileen Canney, Ashley Charters, Alissa Haber, Ashley Hansen and Tammy Williams who represented the next generation of the national program. With no Olympic opportunity on the horizon, those players, all members of the 2010 world championship team that beat an Ueno-less Japan to win gold, also left for the pro league or pursuits beyond the playing field.
In their place, Eriksen assembled a team of players who had either been passed over by the national team, like NPF standout May-Johnson, or were collegians several years ahead of schedule for national team consideration, such as Ricketts and Tennessee's Gibson, both of whom will return to school this fall. With limited funding after the loss of Olympic funding and limited practice time -- Team USA played more than 20 games this summer but Eriksen counted just seven full practices beyond the selection camp in June -- the team still went unbeaten in pool play in Whitehorse and beat Canada's Danielle Lawrie and Ueno on back-to-back days in the medal round before losing by the slimmest of margins in the final. And did it all without outfielder Rhea Taylor in the medal round, a regular starter and key small-ball asset who was sidelined by injury.
It was a team built to meet the demands of an uncertain future. Silver medal or not, it left the tournament worthy stewards of that future, if corporate sponsors or the International Olympic Committee will let them.
But for 10 innings Sunday, the focus was on the present. And at the moment, international softball is Ueno's world.
It's London's loss that you had to go to Whitehorse to see why.