Japanese Pitcher Yukiko Ueno Perfect Storm Of Power And Precision
Think of Yukiko Ueno as one part David and one part Paul Bunyan. She is both the upstart whose arm felled a giant in a sport's most famous moment and a figure whose ability to throw a softball harder than almost anyone else lends itself to a larger-than-life mythology. In her hands, a ball can be both the stone in a slingshot and a big blue ox.
Karen Johns came up with a more meteorological analogy when she first saw Ueno pitch in 2005, three years before the right-hander led Japan to a win against the favored United States in the gold-medal game of the 2008 Olympics. Johns, who would serve as an assistant coach with Team USA for that game in Beijing, went home after her initial encounter with the ace and told her husband she had seen the perfect storm.
The thing that [Yukiko] Ueno could do was that she could throw you the Nolan Ryan 97 mile an hour fastball, but she could also throw you the great changeup. Her ability to deceive the batters with her change of speed is what separated her from everybody else.Karen Johns on Japan's ace
"She was extremely athletic, she had almost flawless mechanics and she was exceptionally competitive," Johns recalled. "So the perfect storm was that she was going to be this amazing, athletic, skilled and could pitch. She just had all the tools for it. It was almost like a double-edged sword for me in some ways. As much as she became our nemesis for the next however many years -- and still is to this day -- it was just awesome to watch someone perform at such a high level like she does."
It isn't so much that Ueno, 32, is the best or most talented pitcher in the world. She might be, mind you, but she clearly has company in the debate as long as Monica Abbott, Cat Osterman and a handful of others are around. What sets her apart is that she keeps doing what Americans aces never have an opportunity to do: beat what is supposed to be the best softball country in the world.
And she once again stands between the United States and the championship it very much wants to reclaim.
As pool play in the ISF World Championship comes to a close later this week, the United States and Japan are unbeaten and on track to meet in the final for the fifth consecutive time. Both teams completed rain-postponed wins Wednesday against teams expected to be their primary competition in pool play, the United States beating Australia 4-2 and Japan beating Canada 4-0. The medal round should offer the Canadians and Australians another chance, but the two favorites thus far look the part.
The United States beat the Netherlands, Botswana, Chinese Taipei, Great Britain and Australia by a combined 37-3 margin in its first five games. Forcing her way into the lineup, be it in the outfield or at her more familiar second base, Kelsey Stewart formed a partnership with Raven Chavanne at the top of the order with a .500 on-base percentage, while Lauren Gibson, Samantha Fischer and Amanda Chidester each hit home runs. All three of the home run hitters are holdovers from the roster that competed in the 2010 tournament, but for an American team with 10 players participating in their first world championship, the whole experience is in some way preliminary until Japan is in the other dugout.
Team USA beat Japan convincingly in the summer's first meeting between the teams, but it didn't make it to the seventh inning in the past two encounters, getting run-ruled twice.
"It's a different style of play than you see," USA rookie Haylie McCleney said of learning the rivalry. "A lot of the times in college everybody kind of plays the same way. Everybody kind of hits, not necessarily the same, but we all have a certain goal that we want to achieve. We have home run hitters and we have slappers and a great diversity. With Japan, it's just different, the way that they play. They're very fundamentally sound, they get the barrel on the ball and they like to hit singles and hit doubles and hit it where you're not. That's something that isn't really seen in college a lot. A lot of our hitters take big hacks and see how far it goes. Playing against Japan is something that is unique, and it's special."
What McCleney and the other rookies have yet to see, and what even the most experienced veterans on the roster have seen only fleetingly in recent years, is Japan's best pitcher. Slowed by what was described as a knee injury earlier this summer, and perhaps also strategically kept in reserve, Ueno didn't pitch for Japan in warm-up events. At her peak, she consistently reached the low 70s on the radar gun and, depending on how tall a tale you choose to believe, sometimes kicked it up to anywhere from 77 to 80. Whether or not she's lost any of that speed, temporarily to injury or permanently to age, the changeup and control that complemented the velocity are going strong.
In Ueno's first start this week, she threw a no-hitter and struck out eight against China. Against Canada, she allowed one hit, struck out 13 and recorded another shutout.
"The thing that Ueno could do was that she could throw you the Nolan Ryan 97-mph fastball, but she could also throw you the great changeup," Johns said. "Her ability to deceive the batters with her change of speed is what separated her from everybody else."
Ueno pitched for Japan in the 2004 Olympics, when the team finished third, but she didn't face the Americans, who outscored opponents 41-0 en route to a third consecutive gold medal. Two years later, she was the single biggest reason Japan beat the United States in a world championship semifinal, and missed out on the title only after losing a 3-0 duel against Osterman in the final. That set the stage for the 2008 Olympics and her signature moment.
After pitching nine innings in a semifinal loss to the United States in Beijing, Ueno returned and threw a 12-inning complete game later the same day to defeat Australia and avoid elimination. With only a night's recuperation, she again went the distance against the combination of Osterman and Abbott in Japan's 3-1 win in the gold-medal game. It was two days, 28 innings and what was considered -- perhaps despite the evidence to the contrary two years earlier -- one of the greatest Olympic upsets of all time.
Now a member of the Akron Racers in National Pro Fastpitch, outfielder Ayumi Karino drove in one of Japan's runs in the 2008 Olympic final. After a recent NPF game in Chicago, she recalled through an interpreter that the performance in the final was the best she had ever seen her teammate throw.
It was a similar view from the opposing dugout.
"She threw smarter that game than she had before," Johns noted. "I think there was, which is probably in all great pitchers, a little bit of 'I can throw it there anyway' in previous games we played against her. I think she understood, you don't go down and in on [Jessica] Mendoza, no matter how good you think you are, because she's just as good a hitter as you are a pitcher. I think she just got smarter. I think she realized she couldn't double-dog dare anyone, so to speak."
Although Karino said some of the momentum for softball in Japan that the win sparked has slowed in recent years for the same reason it has in this country -- the lack of further Olympic exposure -- Ueno still holds mainstream appeal at home. Johns compared her appeal to a mix of Lisa Fernandez and Jennie Finch, the two American players who in successive generations perhaps spread the sport the most beyond its base. Abbott, now in her sixth season pitching professionally in Japan, made a similar comparison.
"I would say she's more like the Lisa Fernandez of softball over there," Abbott said. "When Lisa was coming up, she became that player that everyone looked to. That's how Ueno is. She does things other people can't. She's on TV shows and she's a little celebrity. She does it very well, and she's very good at what she does."
What she does still includes pitching. Four years after her Olympic win, Ueno was at it again against the United States in the 2012 world championship. On her 30th birthday, a day after losing an extra-inning semifinal against the Americans, she beat Australia in an elimination game and then allowed just three hits in 10 innings to edge Keilani Ricketts 2-1 and win the rematch against Team USA. That win gave the Japanese sole possession of all the sport's major titles after a run of 20-plus years in which the United States had won nine consecutive major titles.
Even the redemption the United States had earned in the 2010 world championships came with a catch.
Part of the core of the American team retired after the silver medal in Beijing and the sport's Olympic exit, but a contingent that included Abbott, Finch, Mendoza and Osterman remained with the national program. The eyes of the world weren't on Venezuela for that tournament, not the way they had been in the Olympics, but Team USA outscored its opponents 79-5 and didn't allow a run in the medal round. The dominance included a 7-0 win against Japan in the final.
There was only one complication in the catharsis: Ueno didn't pitch in the tournament.
"I think we knew in our heads, obviously, that we hadn't beaten her, but at the same time, it's still the Japan national team," Osterman said. "You're still getting some redemption back. For us as players, that's what we wanted. We didn't diminish it because she wasn't there, but we also knew that at some point they could possibly pull her out and this would be a closer game again."
She can be David evening the odds.
"I think she gave everybody the idea that, you know what, [the Americans] are human beings and we can be beat," Johns said. "I think that's what she was able to provide for the world, to say this can be done. It takes a whole lot of work and a whole lot of preparation to beat the best team in the world, but it can be done."
But each time she beats the United States, she is more and more Paul Bunyan. Now a young American team may get a chance to prove she, too, is mortal.
Or watch the legend grow.