• REUTERS

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The United States beat Japan 2-1 to end round-robin play on Monday but their failure to record a hit against a third-string pitcher until the sixth inning highlights the challenge they face when the sides meet again in the gold-medal match-up.

U.S. batters did finally get a run against Yamato Fujita in the sixth, and Kelsey Stewart’s tie-breaking homer won the game an inning later.

But, as the United States’ 3-1 loss to Japan in the Beijing 2008 final showed, counting on lucky hits late in the game delivers inconsistent returns.

Failing to hit in key moments foiled the United States against Yukiko Ueno of Japan in 2008 during softball’s last Olympics appearance.

Ueno, 39, will be back in Tuesday’s final, as will U.S. hurlers Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott. Monday’s win means the United States will bat after Japan in the final.

“Get ’em on, get ’em over and get ’em in. That’s they way we’ve played and won games. Timely hitting,” U.S. coach Ken Eriksen said. “I wish we could have 18 runs, but we’re playing against great pitching.”

Overall, the United States finished round-robin play scoring nine runs on 27 hits with Stewart’s blast their lone home run. They stranded 35 runners.

By contrast, Japan had double the runs on 26 hits, including six homers, and left 34 on base.

The rivals went unbeaten against their other four competitors at Tokyo 2020 to set up the 2008 rematch, when Japan became the only team other than the U.S. to capture gold. They have also met for the last seven world championships, with the U.S. taking five of them.

Softball returned for the Tokyo Olympics, and both the hosts and their opponents said they hope an exciting final can make the sport a permanent feature of the Games.

Last-placed Italy scored their only run of the tournament in an 8-1 loss to Canada, who are headed to Tuesday’s bronze medal game against the winners of Mexico vs. Australia later on Monday.

Italy enjoyed the Olympic experience, their players loudly singing their national anthem and handing out cards with their faces on to stadium ushers.

Australia, who have won a medal at each of softball’s four Olympics appearances, could claim their fourth bronze. Canada have also played in each Olympics, but never placed higher than fourth.

Forecast rain could delay the medal games.

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