BEIJING — This was on-field drama at its best: workhorse pitcher Yukiko Ueno playing the starring role, Ayumi Karino and Eri Yamada shining in their supporting roles and Japan destroying the U.S. softball team’s aura of invincibility.
Japan earned a stunning 3-1 victory over the United States in the Beijing Games softball gold medal game on Thursday night at Fengtai Softball Field in the final Olympic title game for at least eight years.
In the triumph, Ueno conjured up memories of Daisuke Matsuzaka for his body of work for Yokohama High School in the National High School Baseball Championship at Koshien Stadium in 1998, pitching for three straight days, including a 250-pitch effort in the 17-inning quarterfinals.
On Wednesday, the 26-year-old Ueno started both games for Japan. She was the losing pitcher in Japan’s 4-1 setback to the United States in the semifinals and returned to the pitching slab for Japan’s 12-inning, 4-3 win against Australia.
Ueno made 318 pitches on Wednesday, but she had enough stamina to throw quality pitches a day later.
“I was so tired but I had a strong mind, so I didn’t feel tired,” Ueno said.
Team USA entered the game with a 22-game win streak and three straight gold medals. The squad had outscored its foes 58-2 in the previous eight Olympic contests.
None of that fazed Ueno.
The Fukuoka native worked her way out of a bases-loaded jam in the first inning.
Americans Natasha Watley and Caitlin Lowe reached on consecutive singles to jump-start the scoring chance, but Ueno got Jessica Mendoza, Crystl Bustos and Kelly Kretschman to the hit ball on the ground for fielder’s choices. Andrea Duran’s flyout ended the threat.
Japan took a 1-0 lead in the third inning. Masumi Mishina rapped a leadoff double and scored on Karino’s single.
Yamada, Japan’s No. 3 hitter, ripped a leadoff home run to center field to give her team a 2-0 lead in the top of the fourth.
“Overall, I’m happy with my performance,” said U.S. left-hander Cat Osterman, who entered the game with a 0.00 ERA over 15 innings. “I would take away two pitches, the double and the home run. Japan put the ball in play at the right time with the RBI and the home run.”
The Americans cut the lead to 2-1 in the fourth on Bustos’ no-out homer.
Ueno worked a 1-2-3 fifth. But she allowed a leadoff single to Lowe in the sixth. Mendoza’s sacrifice gave Team USA a runner in scoring position and the tying run at the plate.
Japan coach Haruka Saito then opted to have Ueno intentionally walk Bustos, who had a tournament-best six homers, including the game-winning, three-run shot on Wednesday against Japan.
With two on and one out, Kretschman walked, setting the stage for Ueno’s second signature moment of the title game.
Ueno remained composed, getting Duran and Stacey Nuveman to hit infield popups to end the inning.
Japan added an insurance run in the seventh off reliever Monica Abbott.
Megu Hirose singled to start the inning and later scored on a throwing error by Abbott. The pitcher opted to throw home after fielding a tapper to the mound hit by Motoko Fujimoto. As Hirose slid into the plate, the throw hit her and U.S. catcher Nuveman was unable to catch the ball or apply the tag.
Victoria Galindo slapped a pinch-hit single to center in the bottom of the seventh. Ueno kept her cool, though, not buckling under the pressure.
Shortstop Rei Nishiyama made a fine running catch on Tairia Flowers’ flyball. Hirose recorded the second out on Watley’s line drive.
Then, Ueno, delivering a performance for the ages, put the finishing touches on a five-hit, four-strikeout gem by getting Lowe to hit a grounder to Mishina, who made the throw to Rie Sato at first for the final out.
The celebration had begun for Japan. Sato threw the ball high into the air, Ueno tossed her glove and Japanese players joined the on-field festivities.
“The world needs to know softball is a really good game,” Yamada said.
Team USA expressed obvious disappointment after its defeat, but said the loss may be a good thing for the sport in the future.
“It’s interesting because everyone says all the time that we win and no one can compete,” Mendoza said. “It was proven today that (other) teams can (win). The sport should remain. It’s global. It’s been a beautiful last two weeks of softball.”
U.S. coach Mike Candrea, the leader on the three gold medal teams, commended Japan for a winning performance.
“It’s a matter of the little things,” Candrea said. “We couldn’t buy a hit when we needed to. The reality is Japan was the better team on the night.”
He was also quick to point out that his team is not unbeatable.
“I don’t think that people outside the game understand,” Candrea said. “If you’re on the team and in the dugout, you know that any team can get hot.
“I feel that people should get off our back. There is some parity in this sport. I’ve been around long enough to expect everyone we play to be getting better. Sometimes a game looks easy and it really isn’t.”
And then the reality sunk in: Saito’s team cannot defend its title at the 2012 London Summer Games.
Both teams now turn their attention to the Back Softball Campaign, the International Softball Federation’s organized effort to have softball reinstated as an Olympic sport for the 2012 London Games.
“Our winning is the first step to help Back Softball,” Yamada said. “We are very glad we made it.”
Added Saito: “We will promote it all over the world, every corner of the world.”