In the moments after Japan’s win over the United States in the Tokyo Olympic softball final, a reporter in the Yokohama Stadium press box was on the phone attempting to explain what happened on the biggest play of the game.
Even though he broke it down slowly, the person on the other side was having a hard time figuring it all out. Probably because it seemed so unreal at that moment.
A strong pitching performance, two runs and a play that will be talked about for a long time to come helped give Japan its second straight softball gold medal — albeit 13 years after the previous one — with a 2-0 win over the U.S. in the gold medal game on Tuesday night.
Mana Atsumi and Yamato Fujita each drove in a run, while pitchers Yukiko Ueno and Miu Goto held the United States to just three hits.
Ueno, Japan’s longtime ace, struck out five over six innings and earned the win.
“I’m feeling so many emotions right now,” Ueno said. “I’ve been carrying a lot of thoughts for the past 13 years.
“I was going to throw until I couldn’t throw anymore, that’s the feeling I took to the mound.”
The game was a rematch of the final in 2008 — the last time softball was on the Olympic program — which also ended with the Japanese celebrating a gold medal. Ueno and American Cat Osterman were the starters in 2008 and again on Tuesday night at Yokohama Stadium.
“The disappointment is only from the end result, it’s not from the whole tournament, it’s not from the whole game,” Osterman said. “I’m very proud of our team and everything that we have dealt with in the last 2½ years.”
The play of the game came in the sixth, with the Americans down 2-0 but with runners on first and second with one out.
Amanda Chidester hit a rocket to the left side of the field that struck Yu Yamamoto in the wrist and ricocheted into the air close enough for Atsumi to reach out and catch it before twirling around and throwing to second to complete an improbable inning-ending double play in a huge spot.
The Japanese team celebrated while Chidester looked on with her mouth agape in disbelief.
“When that happens, you’re just like, ‘wow,'” U.S. pitcher Monica Abbott said. “It hits you in the gut. If that goes through, we probably tie the game, maybe even go up with just the amount of momentum we could have on that alone.”
The U.S. defeated Japan 2-1 in their final pool game on Monday, but the Japanese turned the tables when it mattered most.
"Our team had a tremendous effort tonight,” U.S. manager Ken Eriksen said. “It wasn't our day and some bad luck. But at the same time, you have to credit Team Japan with playing a really, really good game. Their pitcher Ueno was very aggressive. Their offense created a lot of traffic on the basepaths. It was a typical USA-Japan game. It was tight all the way to the end."
The starting pitchers each got out of a little trouble early in the contest.
Japan got a runner to third with two outs in the top of the first, only to have Osterman shut the door. American No. 2 batter Janie Reed tripled off Ueno in the bottom half. Reed nearly scored on a wild pitch, but Japan catcher Haruka Agatsuma fielded the ball and flipped it to Ueno, who tagged out Reed at the plate. Fujita opened the fourth with a single to center off Ally Carda, who relieved Osterman in the previous inning. Fujita went to second on a sacrifice bunt and reached third on a groundout.
After Yuka Ichiguchi walked to put runners on the corners, Atsumi hit a grounder to second and beat Ali Aguiler's throw to first as Fujita scored the game's first run.
Yamamoto poked a two-out single into center in the top of the fifth, and the U.S. brought on Abbott to pitch. Yamamoto raced to second on a wild pitch and came home on a single by Fujita to make the score 2-0.
Fujita was already familiar with Abbott and the way she pitches from their matchups in Japan’s pro softball league.
“I was prepared,'' Fujita said.
The U.S. was mounting a challenge in the sixth before Japan turned its improbable double play.
"An unfortunate line drive was turned into a double play,” Eriksen said. “That ball was hit really, really hard and then you have one of the world's best hitters coming up. Fortune went the way of Team Japan on that."
Ueno retried the side in order in the seventh to wrap up the gold.
As was the case in 2008, softball now faces an uncertain future. The sport is not on the program for the 2024 Summer Games in Paris.
"It is unfortunate that we are not in '24," Osterman said. "All of us are trying to do our part to get it in '28 (Los Angeles) and '32 (Brisbane, Australia) since we know obviously how the United States and Australia truly love the sport."
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