OKLAHOMA CITY —
On a night when plenty of bad things happened to the United States softball team, the good news for the Americans was this: they still control their own destiny in the eighth World Cup of Softball.
The U.S. surrendered its most runs ever in a game in a major international tournament and lost 7-4 to Japan on Saturday night, which allowed Japan to advance to tonight’s gold-medal game.
But if the Americans (2-1) beat Puerto Rico (0-3) this afternoon, they will get a rematch against Japan (3-1) for the gold medal, courtesy of a runs-allowed tiebreaker. But should the U.S. lose, Canada (3-1) will play Japan, with the U.S. relegated to the bronze-medal game against either Australia (1-3) or Puerto Rico.
Japan posted its second straight win over the U.S. in international play, having won 2-1 in the gold-medal game in last year’s world championships. The U.S. never had given up more than six runs in any game in any international tournament — that came in 1983, in a 16-6 win over Belize in the Pan American Games.
The U.S. hadn’t lost in the World Cup since falling 4-3 to Canada in 2011. But despite all those negative numbers, U.S. coach Ken Eriksen was upbeat, noting that the U.S. was competitive against Japan’s ace, Yukiko Ueno.
“I’m pretty excited, actually, the way we responded tonight,” Eriksen said. “Our pitching was a little awry. Our pitching was a very young tonight, in respect to maturity, how they approached the hitters and so forth.
“But the way our kids responded, showing they were not overmatched — anytime you get eight hits and four runs off the No. 1 pitcher in the world and move the ball as well as we did, I thought we played very, very well offensively. I thought we did some great things defensively. What you hope for is the maturation of the pitching. That’s a whole mental thing.”
The first inning lasted 35 minutes. Misato Kawano gave Japan a quick lead with a leadoff homer to right field off U.S. starter Aimee Creger (0-1). Creger, playing just down the road from her home in suburban Oklahoma City, recovered to record two quick outs, but then surrendered a single to Yukiyo Mine and a double down the left-field line to Misa Okubo.
Eriksen quickly changed pitchers, inserting Cheridan Hawkins. Hawkins’ first pitch was wild, allowing Mine to score, and a passed ball by U.S. catcher Lindsey Ziegenhirt moments later brought Okubo home, putting Japan up 3-0.
“I wanted to score more runs, because (the U.S. is) a very good hitting team,” Japan coach Reika Utsugi said through an interpreter. “But that helped a lot to score early.”
The U.S. loaded the bases in the bottom of the first when Michelle Moultrie and Lauren Gibson singled and Amanda Chidester was hit by a pitch. Valerie Arioto’s one-out bloop single scored Moultrie, but Taylor Thom struck out looking and Ziegenhirt popped up.
Rhea Taylor singled for the U.S. and scored in the second, courtesy of errors by shortstop Rei Nishiyama and Ueno, cutting Japan’s lead to 3-2.
Japan extended its lead to 6-2 in the fourth, recording five hits off Hawkins and reliever Sara Nevins. Nozomi Shimasaki, pinch-hitter Natsuko Ono and Kawano had RBI singles in the inning.
Ueno retired nine straight batters before Gibson walked with two outs. Chidester followed with a blast over the left-field wall to pull the U.S. within 6-4.
But Japan extended the lead again in the sixth, as Rie Nagayoshi walked and scored on a groundout by Nishiyama.
“Because we have a young team with us this year, I am surprised that we were able to hit that well today,” Utsagi said.
The U.S. nearly rallied in the bottom of the seventh, but Raven Chavanne was thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double, which proved big when Gibson followed with a two-out double to left-center field.
“Japan is a very good team — offensively, defensively and pitching, of course,” Gibson said. “We obviously have some things to work on. But offensively, I felt we attacked really well.”
Eriksen said he wasn’t as bothered by surrendering seven runs as one might expect.
“Did they out-crush us? No,” he said. “Did they move the ball and the ball found the holes? How many jam-job base hits did we give up? You have to realize, that’s bad luck sometimes. There’s nothing you can do about it. The softball gods weren’t with you tonight. But man, you battled back. There was a relentless drive of trying to get back to seven. Every time they scored, we responded.”