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Ueno guides Japan to fourth consecutive Asian Games softball title

by Dave Hueston

Kyodo

Japan’s softball team understands the importance of being the hammer not the anvil, the molder of change not the ones molded by it.

The women, who went undefeated in the 17th Asian Games softball tournament en route to winning the gold medal, have their eyes set on one goal: softball’s return on home soil at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Beijing Olympic champion Yukiko Ueno threw six sharp innings of two-hit ball, Haruna Sakamoto drove in two runs in a nine-hit attack, and Japan thrashed Taiwan 6-0 Thursday to win its fourth consecutive title.

“I think we showed that Asia is really making efforts (to (bring softball back). Hopefully, as manager I was able to do my job to the fullest in helping that effort,” said Japan manager Reika Utsugi after Japan’s victory. “This is a tournament about results and so in that sense, I think we had a perfect team.”

The last time Japan stood on the world stage in this event at an international multi-sports tournament, it shined triumphant winners over the United States for the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Games — a bittersweet victory as the sport was dropped, along with baseball, ahead of the 2012 London Games.

Fast forward six years, they are more resolute than ever.

“We were able to take control in the final. It wasn’t easy, even though people expect us to be the winners. This was a great effort toward showing that we want softball back in the Olympics,” said catcher Yukiyo Mine.

The only team in the tournament to go a perfect 5-0 in the preliminary round, Japan outscored its opponent a whopping 39-3. Including the semifinals and final, Japan was 7-0, outscoring its opponents 51-4. The team tossed Utsugi in the air in the victory celebration and held up a banner that read, “Baseball and Softball in 2020” at the medals ceremony.

The 32-year-old Ueno, who shrugged off an injury to her left knee, struck out six over four scoreless innings of two-hit ball in a 6-1 semifinal win over Taiwan on Wednesday.

She was just as dominant in the final, fanning seven with no walks for Japan, which won its second consecutive world championships title in August.

“We had some great batters in the lineup and some young pitchers. They were great,” said Ueno. “I didn’t change much in the way I was pitching but just tried not to fall into one pattern.”

Yamato Fujita shut the door with a scoreless seventh after a short rain delay. She got Yang Yi-ting to hit into a grounder at second for the final out after allowing a runner to reach second.

“I was reaching my limit and we want to give some of the other pitchers, like Fujita, a chance on a stage like this. I think this means we are improving as a team,” Ueno said.

Asked her thoughts on softball returning in 2020, Ueno said, “For us, the main thing is showing the enjoyment of this sport in our own way. That’s all we do.”

Taiwan, runner-up in the preliminary round, beat China 4-3 earlier in the day for the right to play Japan for the gold. China received the bronze medal.

Misa Okubo opened the scoring with a two-out RBI single for a 1-0 lead in the second at Songdo LNG Baseball Stadium. Japan scored on a double steal in the three-run third, which also featured RBI singles by Sakamoto and Yuka Ichiguchi.

Huang Hui-wen had a fifth-inning leadoff single, but Ueno stopped the runner from advancing with a quick-reflex throw to second on Yang Yi-ting’s sacrifice bunt, then struck out the next two batters to end the threat.

Japan threatened again with runners on first and second with two outs in the fifth. But left-fielder Huang made a fine diving catch of pinch hitter Nozomi Nagasaki’s line drive to end the inning.

Sakamoto added an RBI single in a two-run sixth.

Chung Hui-lin was chased in 2-2/3 innings after allowing four runs on three hits with four walks.

“Ueno is our ace, it goes without saying. The team rallies around her,” Utsugi said.