Japan upsets American women in softball final
The end of Olympic softball for the foreseeable future also saw the end of a team's dynasty in the sport.
Japan stunned the United States 3-1 in the gold-medal final at the Beijing Games on Thursday, denying the Americans of their fourth straight top finish in Olympic competition.
It was a thrilling end for a competition that may not be on the Olympic radar for another eight years. The International Olympic Committee voted softball off the 2012 program in London, although the sport is hoping to be reinstated next year, in time for the 2016 Games.
Thursday's win gives Japan its first gold medal in Olympic women's softball.
It also ended the 22-game winning streak for the Americans, whose last loss in Olympic competition also came against Japan, in preliminary play at the 2000 Sydney Games.
But the stakes couldn't have been higher Thursday for the top-ranked U.S. squad, which gets silver.
Australia won the bronze after it was beaten by Japan on Wednesday.
Masumi Mishina scored on an RBI single in the third, Eri Yamada added a solo home run in the fourth, while Megu Hirose scored on an infield hit in the seventh to account for Japan's offence.
Crystl Bustos replied with her sixth home run of the tournament for the U.S. in the fourth inning.
American starting pitcher Cat Osterman retired the first six batters she faced, striking out five. But the few hits she did allow early in the game proved costly.
Osterman's performance was in stark contrast to that of Japanese starter Yukiko Ueno, who found herself in bases-loaded jams in the first and sixth innings, but worked her way out of both of them.
Ueno, who entered Thursday's matchup as the tournament leader in batters faced (149) and innings pitched (40.0), threw a complete game — just one day after she pitched 21 innings over two games to get the Japanese into the gold-medal final.
U.S. fails to capitalize on chances
The Americans appeared poised to score in the first inning as Natasha Watley and Caitlin Lowe eached reached base on infield singles.
After Jennifer Mendoza hit a sharp grounder to the left side that forced out Watley at third, Bustos loaded the bases with a fielder's choice.
But Kelly Kretschman's fielder's choice eliminated Lowe at home plate and Andrea Duran ended the threat with a flyout to end the first.
Osterman whipped through the first six batters she faced but ran into trouble right away in the third as Mishina led off the frame with double and then advanced to tagged up to take third base on a sacrifice fly.
Two batters later, Ayumi Karino hit a two-out single to cash in Mishina and give Japan a 1-0 lead.
The lead doubled in the fourth as Yamada led off the inning with her shot over the wall in centre.
Bustos responded with her leadoff homer in the bottom of the fourth, but the Americans didn't have a chance at an equalizer until the sixth inning.
Lowe led off the sixth with a single and then advanced to second on a grounder from Mendoza.
Ueno then intentionally walked Bustos, before serving up another free pass to Kretschman to load the bases.
But Duran and Stacey Nuveman each hit a pop fly to end threat and keep the Americans behind by a run.
Japan capitalized on a pair of American errors for the insurance run in the seventh inning.
Hirose led off the inning with a single and took second on a fielder's choice from Mishina that was misplayed by Watley at shortstop.
After the Japanese base runners advanced to second and third on a groundout, Motoko Fujimoto hit a shot up the middle that was fielded by pitcher Monica Abbott, who relieved Osterman in the sixth.
Abbott threw home to try and get Hirose, but the throw was off-line and Japan took a 3-1 lead.
The U.S. had one last chance in the bottom half of the seventh after Victoria Galindo led off with a single, but Japan made a pair of sparkling defensive plays on the final two outs to preserve the win.
With files from the Associated Press