BEIJING – Rei Nishiyama singled home the game-winning run in the bottom of the 12th inning Wednesday, lifting Japan to a 4-3 victory over Australia for a rematch with the United States in the softball final at the Beijing Olympics.
The game appeared to be over again and again and in the end it was a matter of who wanted it more. Japan, which is aiming for its first Olympic gold, will meet the Americans in Thursday’s gold medal match. Australia had to settle for the bronze medal.
Natalie Ward doubled home a run to break a 2-2 tie in the top of the 11th, only for Satoko Mabuchi to hit a bloop single to left to retie the game at 3-3 in the bottom half.
Perhaps it was hubris or just overconfidence but Japanese manager Haruka Saito stuck with starter Yukiko Ueno through thick and thin, even though the right-hander had already pitched nine innings earlier in the day in a 4-1 lost to Team USA in the semifinal.
Megu Hirose hit a two-run homer in the fourth inning to give Japan a 2-1 lead and workhorse Ueno looked to have the game in the bag until Kerry Wyborn lined a shot over the center-field wall with two outs to tie it in the seventh at Fengtai Softball Field.
In the bottom of the seventh, Japan had a chance to score again after putting a runner at first with two outs.
Motoko Fujimoto doubled to the corner in right but pinch-hitter Sachiko Ito was tagged out at the plate after she tried scoring all the way from first base, forcing the game into extra innings.
Both teams kept it close in extra frames, missing several opportunities to end it. Japan put runners on second and third with two outs in the bottom of the ninth but failed to close the deal.
Again Japan could have ended the nail-biter after Ayumi Karino tripled with two outs in the 10th but Nishiyama flew out out to center.
Ueno, constantly getting in and out of trouble, showed true grit. Signs of fatigue started to show when she loaded the bases with two outs in the third, but the hard-throwing right-hander struck out Natalie Titcume to end the threat.
Japan has won a silver and a bronze with one finish in fourth since softball became an official medal sport in the Olympic program in Atlanta in 1996. Softball will be dropped from the 2012 London Games along with baseball.
The undefeated Americans, who have a 13-6 overall record in games played against Japan since 2004, are seeking their fourth consecutive Olympic gold.