• Kyodo

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Tanya Harding threw a four-hit shutout as Japan suffered a 3-0 defeat to Australia on Sunday and was forced to settle for a bronze medal in softball at the Athens Olympics.

The Japanese, who were hoping to go one better than their silver medal finish at the Sydney Games in 2000, lost to the Australians for the second time in the tournament in a match that put the winner into the final, handing the loser the bronze.

“The players did their best and I don’t blame them. I take all the responsibility for what happened today,” said Japan head coach Taeko Utsugi, who led a team considered one of the gold medal favorites.

“We’ve been practicing with the assumption that we’d meet the United States in the final. I wish I could’ve given (Yukiko) Ueno another opportunity to pitch,” she said of the right-hander, who pitched the first-ever perfect game in Olympic softball history in a game against China on Friday.

Ueno started a semifinal again against China earlier Sunday at Olympic Softball Stadium, in which Japan won 1-0 in an extra-inning tiebreaker.

Australia was defeated by the United States 5-0, also Sunday, but the victory over Japan gave it a second chance to challenge the two-time defending Olympic champion in Monday’s final.

In its match against Japan, Australia broke a scoreless deadlock when Kerry Wyborn hit a three-run double to deep center off Juri Takayama in the top of the fifth inning, after the bases were loaded on a single, a walk and a hit batter.

The Japanese wasted a two-out, two-on opportunity in the bottom half, but the lack of firepower in their offense cost them dearly as had been throughout the tournament, particularly with runners in scoring position.

Harding, who held Japan scoreless over 6 1/3 innings of relief in a 4-2 win in its tournament opener Aug. 14, posted her fourth win in eight games after outdueling Takayama.

Utsugi to retire

ATHENS (Kyodo) Japan captain Reika Utsugi announced her retirement from the national softball team after her bid to bring Japan an Olympic gold medal ended with a disappointing defeat to Australia at the Athens Games on Sunday.

“I’m going to end my playing career for the national team,” Utsugi, 41, said after Japan failed to advance to the final with a 3-0 loss to Australia and ended with bronze.

A former Chinese national team player, Utsugi obtained Japanese citizenship in 1995 and took up the last name of head coach Taeko Utsugi out of respect for her adopted mentor.

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