Five takeaways from junior worlds
The United States junior national team didn't need to come to bat in the seventh inning of any of its first eight games in the ISF Junior World Championship. Large leads made those final outs superfluous. Sunday, the video feed from the tournament showed American players trying to clear standing water from the infield with water bottles, buckets, brooms and anything else they could find, hoping to find a way to play the seventh.
It wasn't to be.
Japan beat the United States 4-0 in a championship game shortened to six innings after two lengthy rain delays. Team USA outscored opponents 70-0 en route to the final, including a 4-0 win against Japan in a Saturday semifinal. But Japan made its way through the losers bracket and pulled off the final upset behind a complete game one-hit shutout from Kana Nakano and a four-run fifth inning capped by Chiharu Aoki's two-run home run.
It was the seventh consecutive championship game between the two countries in the junior tournament (for players 19 and younger) and the fourth win for Japan in that span, which predates any of the players who were on the field in this final. With the win, Japan is the reigning world champion at both the senior and junior levels, its wins against Team USA coming in tournaments held in North America.
On to five thoughts taken from the tournament.
1. Japan has the upper hand in a terrific rivalry. In addition to its hold on world championships, Japan also won the last Olympic gold medal. It has a healthier professional league. If you took the best 17 American players from the national program and National Pro Fastpitch (home to more proven American stars at the moment) and an equal number of Japanese players and played a seven-game series, would Team USA be the favorite? Probably. The depth of talent a provided by pitching staff of Monica Abbott, Cat Osterman and Keilani Ricketts would be difficult to match. That's why the 2008 Olympic final was such an upset.
But that's where we are, the United States left to grasp at hypotheticals, while Japan holds all the relevant hardware.
Bragging rights aren't really up for grabs when the full national teams play Saturday in the World Cup of Softball, an annual tournament in Oklahoma City that isn't a major championship. But it will be the first chance (and second, should the two teams meet in the final), to assess Team USA's chances of reclaiming the senior world championship in the Netherlands next summer. As Japan showed this past week in Brampton, even as legendary ace Yukiko Ueno and the generation that upset the United States in 2008 gradually exits (Ueno is expected to be in Oklahoma City), Nakano and a new generation appear capable of extending the rivalry.
2. Japan gambled wisely. It's an inherently flawed tournament format that differentiates between the United States and Japan after they split their two games and each finished with one loss overall, but it's equally flawed for both teams. Which is to say, Japan won the title Sunday exactly the way the United States won it two years earlier after losing a semifinal against its rival. In this instance, Japan just made the right gamble.
Instead of starting Nakano in the semifinal, Japan went with secondary pitchers. It lost the game, but it clearly felt the extra elimination game that necessitated against Australia was a small price to pay in order to keep its ace under wraps (the Americans obviously scouted Nakano, but facing her is a different beast). Ueno's teammate in the Japanese professional league, Nakano flummoxed American batters throughout the final with her changeup. On the other hand, Japanese hitters who had flailed at American ace Cheridan Hawkins a day earlier without much result made better contact the second time they faced her.
3. Cheridan Hawkins can win a title. The championship game will sting. That's the way it works. But one day that saw a very good Japanese team collect a lot of hits on a lot of balls that weren't hit all that hard (until the home run from Chiharu Aoki) shouldn't be the lasting image of the American ace. It's a tournament about showcasing the players of the future, and Hawkins is the kind of pitcher with whom the University of Oregon can win a championship.
Coming off an outstanding freshman college season in which she had the benefit of sharing tough assignments with senior All-American Jessica Moore, Hawkins got the ball in every game that mattered in Brampton, against Canada, Australia and twice against Japan. She pitched brilliantly on three of those occasions and struggled once. That's not a disappointing tournament; that's a brilliant tournament with a disappointing final act. Oklahoma and Keilani Ricketts aside, history proves teams don't need the best pitcher in the country to win a college title. It also proves it's difficult to win without one of the best. Oregon knows it has just that for three more years.
4. This freshman class is already special. Team USA starters Haylie McCleney, Sierra Romero and Kelsey Stewart weren't just the best freshman hitters in college softball; they were three of the most productive offensive players in the college game, period (as were Texas A&M's Cali Lanphear and Georgia's Geri Ann Glasco, freshmen who weren't part of Team USA). Missouri's Emily Crane and UCLA's Mysha Sataraka demonstrated in Brampton that they aren't far behind that pace. The bats fell silent against Nakano, but looking to the future, this group could be one of the best offensive college classes in recent memory.
5. It's slow going for the rest of the world. The UEFA Women's Championship gets underway later this week in Sweden, and it may well be Germany that wins a sixth consecutive title in the now quadrennial soccer event. But whether or not the German dynasty continues, there promises to be a lot of quality soccer played across the board. The depth of the women's game continues to grow in soccer (maybe not enough just yet to justify the expanded World Cup field, but that's another story). People involved will tell you softball also continues to grow globally at a grassroots level. But believing it is as much an act of faith as evidence.
Brazil was a pleasant surprise in Brampton and reached the medal round. The Netherlands remains an outpost of respectable softball in Europe. But some of the games that didn't involve the United States, Japan, Canada or Australia were played at a level below that of NCAA Division III competition, and it wasn't much better at the senior level in the 2012 world championship. The Olympics aren't a magic elixir that would suddenly make Great Britain a threat to win a medal, but they're the starting point for any future that realistically includes such a scenario.