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Japan, USA win as softball makes its Olympic return

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                Kaia Parnaby pitches for Australia against Japan. Parnaby is one of four Australians that played at the University of Hawaii.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Kaia Parnaby pitches for Australia against Japan. Parnaby is one of four Australians that played at the University of Hawaii.

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                Japan’s Yukiko Ueno pitches during the game.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Japan’s Yukiko Ueno pitches during the game.

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                The United States’ Cat Osterman pitches during the softball game between Italy and the United States.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    The United States’ Cat Osterman pitches during the softball game between Italy and the United States.

FUKUSHIMA, Japan >> Yukiko Ueno had waited 4,718 days for this moment, 13 long years that included an extra delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Finally, after all the doubts the Tokyo Olympics would ever take place, she was back on the mound trying to start her country to another softball gold medal.

“Before the game I was actually trying to calm down and not let myself overly feel excited about this opportunity to go back to the mound for the Olympics,” she said through a translator. “I was overly thinking.”

The 39-year-old pitcher settled down from a shaky start to allow two hits over 4 1/3 innings in a nearly empty stadium, and host Japan got off to a winning start when the Olympics got underway, beating Australia 8-1 Wednesday.

Playing about 150 miles north of the main Olympic sites in Tokyo, the teams lined up for the national anthems in a stadium with a listed capacity of 30,000 that had about 50 spectators, presumably team and Olympic officials, plus media.

The first two days of the softball tournament are being played about 40 miles from the site of a 2011 nuclear power plant disaster. The rest of the tournament will be in Yokohama, near Tokyo.

“It’s kind of a disappointment,” Uena said. “We wanted to demonstrate our play in front of people of Fukushima, who have made a lot of efforts to reconstruct Fukushima.”

Fans were barred from the Olympics because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many in Japan have questioned whether the Olympics should take place at all with low levels of vaccination in the nation.

“Australia can create its own excitement,” third baseman Stacey Porter said.

Ueno, who won the 2008 gold medal game, struck out seven and threw 85 pitches for the win.

Minori Naito and Saki Yamazaki hit two-run homers off loser Kaia Parnaby and Yu Yamamoto, who had three RBIs, added a two-run drive against Tarni Stepto in the fifth that ended the game under a rout rule. Parnaby is one of four Australians that played at the University of Hawaii.

Ueno started Australia’s Michelle Cox off with a ball at 9:02 a.m. at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium, beginning an Olympics whose viability has been repeatedly questioned.

It was 88 degrees with 60% humidity for the morning start, which had the sun in the eyes of left-handed batters. The artificial turf made it seem even warmer, and Stepto pitched without a cap.

Ueno forced in a run in the first by hitting Chelsea Forkin with a pitch, her second straight hit batter.

Yamamoto singled in a run in the bottom half and Japan took a 3-1 lead in the third when Naito fouled off a 1-2 changeup, and drove a hanging changeup over the left-center field fence.

Yamazaki reached on a grounder leading off the fourth when Forkin dropped the throw at first, and Fujita drove a 1-0 pitch over the 220-foot fence in left center. Nodoka Harada added a sacrifice fly off Stepto for a 6-1 lead.

Japan is the defending softball gold medalist after upsetting the U.S. in the 2008 final. Softball and baseball were dropped for 2012 and 2016 and restored for this year’s Olympics. They already have been dropped for the 2024 Paris Games and are likely to be restored for 2028 in Los Angeles.

Japan coach Reika Utsugi had thought Uena would be especially ready for the opener.

“She was the reason we that became so strong a team,” Utsugi said, “and we were able to dream about winning the gold.”

United States 2, Italy 0

Cat Osterman looked ahead, not behind, in the start of the United States’ quest to regain the Olympic softball gold medal, 13 years after she lost the championship game.

A 38-year-old left-hander and one of two remaining players from 2008, Osterman pitched one-hit ball over six innings and struck out nine to beat Italy 2-0 Wednesday in searing heat and wilting humidity as the Olympics got underway.

“Today was about today,” she said. “If I use ‘08 as motivation, then I’m selfish. This is not about me. This is not about a silver medal that happened. This is about this team and allowing these athletes that are younger than me to be able to live out an Olympic dream and hopefully get to that top step on the podium. So today was totally about how are we going to beat Italy and how am I going to help this team get started.”

Michelle Moultrie singled in a run in the fourth inning for the top-ranked U.S., which lost the title to Japan 3-1 at the 2008 Beijing Games. Janie Reed, the wife of Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Jake Reed, added a sacrifice fly in the fifth.

“There’s a lot that goes on with just trying to get into a groove of: I’ve always done this. It’s the same game I’ve always played,” said Moultrie, a 31-year-old outfielder who joined the national team in 2011.

Osterman walked none, hit two batters and gave up her only hit to Andrea Filler, a single leading off the fourth. The last remaining player from the 2004 gold medalists and pitching 2 1/2 months before her intended retirement, Osterman improved to 6-1 in Olympic play with 66 strikeouts in 38 innings.

“The body doesn’t recover as fast,” she said. “Coachie likes to remind me sometimes I’m not as flexible, so I have to adjust my pitches a little bit. But I think the biggest thing is my mentality and my competitiveness has stayed the same.”

Monica Abbott, a 35-year-old lefty who relieved in the 2008 gold medal game, struck out the side in the seventh for the save. She may start Thursday morning’s game against Canada, part of an entire Olympics played with no fans.

“It’s kind of sad that there can’t be any spectators, especially no foreign spectators,” Abbott said. “This is an event that doesn’t happen all the time, so it’s disappointing not to have people in the stands — but also not having Japanese fans when Japan is such a softball-loving country.”

Players sweated off pounds on the artificial turf.

“We trained in Midland, Texas, were the turf was 150 degrees,” U.S. coach Ken Eriksen said. “So we’re prepared for Fukushima at 145 degrees.”

Loser Greta Cecchetti, a pitcher for Texas A&M Corpus Christi, allowed two runs and four hits in four-plus innings.

Valerie Arioto led off the fourth with an infield hit up the middle, beating the throw from second baseman Andrea Filler. Ali Aguilar sacrificed, and Moultrie grounded a single on the artificial turf and past Filler and into right field, sending Arioto sliding across the plate.

Alexia Lacatena, an 18-year-old from Stanhope, New Jersey, who will pitch for the University of Kentucky next spring, relieved and allowed a sacrifice fly to Reed, whose husband made his big league debut on July 6 and had six appearances before he was optioned Tuesday to Triple-A Oklahoma City.

Italy’s last nine batters were retired in order.

“‘08 we didn’t have a bad tournament,” Osterman said. “We just had a game that didn’t go our way.”

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