YOKOHAMA, Japan — After a 13-year wait, it comes down to this: the United States and Japan, the world’s softball powers, are facing off for the gold medal.
The last time the two teams were in this position was in 2008, when softball was last an Olympic offering. In the final at the Beijing Games, Japan’s star pitcher Yukiko Ueno outdueled her counterparts — Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott — to lead Japan in a stunning 3-1 upset of the previously invincible United States.
It was the only time a softball gold medal hadn’t been won by the United States, dating back to 1996. So when the sport returned to the Tokyo Games, there was little doubt that the two squads would arrive back at this very position again, for the third time in Olympic softball history, fighting for the top prize.
“We assumed that’s who we would be matched up with,” Osterman said on Monday. “You never know until the games are played out, but we knew that was a strong chance we would end with them.”
Osterman, who entered Tuesday without having allowed a run in nearly 13 innings this tournament, started the game for the United States. She coughed up an infield single in the first inning — a comebacker she couldn’t field cleanly — and a double in the second. But she escaped without any damage, getting help from right fielder Michelle Moultrie and her running catch at the wall to end the second.
When Osterman walked Mana Atsumi to lead off the third inning, United States head coach Ken Erickson emerged from the dugout to bring in Ally Carda. After allowing another base runner, Carda pitched out of trouble.
An inning later, though, Japan capitalized. Yamato Fujita singled, moved to second base on a sacrifice bunt and then advanced to third on a ground out. She gave Japan a 1-0 lead when Mana Atsumi chopped a ground ball and slid head first into first base to beat out the throw.
Japan wriggled out of its own jams, keeping the United States off the board through the first four innings. Janie Reed tripled with one out in the first, but she was thrown out trying to score on a wild pitch thanks to catcher Haruka Agatsuma’s quick recovery of the ball and Ueno’s covering the bag.
The United States went 5-0 in robin-robin play and on Monday handed Japan its only loss, 2-1, on a walk-off blast by Kelsey Stewart. But that game didn’t matter because both teams were by far the best of the tournament and had already claimed a spot in Tuesday’s winner-takes-all game.
Earlier in the day, Canada sneaked by Mexico, 3-2, to win the bronze medal, its first medal in Olympic softball.