YOKOHAMA, Japan — If the previous contests are any indication of what is to come, the gold medal game between the United States and Japan on Tuesday is likely to be another classic between the best two softball teams in the world.
The United States’ 2-1 win over Japan at Yokohama Baseball Stadium on Monday, their final game of round-robin play, didn’t matter much because both teams had already secured their spots in the gold medal game. And the three best pitchers in tournament either barely pitched (Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman of the United States) or not at all (Yukiko Ueno of Japan). Still, the contest showed once again that the two rivals were closely matched.
The last time the teams faced off for a gold medal was in 2008, when Ueno led Japan in a stunning 3-1 upset of the United States, which was seeking its fourth straight top prize. So it was only fitting that after the sport was absent for 13 years from the Olympics, it would return with the very same teams and some of the same cast of characters.
“It’s crazy,” U.S. outfielder Janie Reed said. “It just shows how talented those pitchers are to still be at the top of their game, 13 years later. So hats off to them. But there is also some nostalgia, and it’s really exciting to get to be a part of it.”
Ueno has carried Japan’s pitching staff throughout the 2020 tournament and figures to be on the mound on Tuesday. In 2008, she tossed 413 pitches in three games over the final two days, including outdueling Osterman and Abbott in the gold medal final.
“She’s experienced, but so are we,” center fielder Haylie McCleney, the United States’ best hitter this tournament, said of Ueno. “We’re ready. We figured we would have this matchup, so we’re excited. It’s going to be a good game tomorrow, and everybody should tune in and watch.”
So far, the United States has struggled to score runs at the same pace as Japan. The U.S. won all five of its round-robin games by two runs or fewer, outscoring their opponents 9-2. Japan, though, led by Yamato Fujita, outscored its opponents 18-5 but went 4-1.
“I know there are fans back home grumbling about the offense,” Osterman said, “but the truth is this is a competitive game internationally, and blowouts are not happening anymore.”
Monday was the latest taut matchup. After pitcher Ally Carda coughed up a first-inning run, the United States rallied in the sixth to tie the score. Kelsey Stewart smacked the walk-off blast in the bottom of the next frame. She threw her arms up in the air as she rounded the bases, while her teammates bounced up and down and head coach Ken Eriksen hugged his assistants.
“It was like something you dream about as a little kid: a home run at the Olympics, let alone a walk-off,” Stewart said.
After the victory, Carda, who struck out nine batters, said that even though Monday was just another game, it was useful for further scouting out their rival. “And really, it is just fun,” she added. “We’re both very competitive teams.”
In just over a day, the United States and Japan will line up and do it all over again. But this time, it will be for the top global honor in the sport and with their best on the mound.
“We’re excited to write our chapter in the Olympic softball history book,” McCleney said.