The U.S. softball team's aura of invincibility vanished Thursday. A team expected to duplicate its 1996 gold-medal triumph must now fight to get into the medal round, all the while wondering where its vaunted offense has gone.
Peta Edebone's two-out, two-run home run in the bottom of the 13th inning off Lisa Fernandez lifted the exultant Australians to a 2-1 victory over the U.S. at Blacktown Softball Center and dropped the U.S. to 2-3. The top four teams in the eight-team tournament advance to the medal round, but that mission may be beyond the limited capabilities of the U.S. offense, which has produced two runs in the past three games--all of them extra-inning contests.
The U.S. had broken a scoreless tie in the top of the 13th. Christie Ambrosi's first hit of the tournament, a single lined to short left, scored Michele Smith. Smith started the inning on second base, in accordance with international softball rules designed to increase scoring and shorten extra-inning games.
However, Australia (4-1) rallied moments later. Sally McCreedy started the inning on second, but Fernandez quickly got the next two outs. Her first pitch to Edebone landed in the sun-drenched left-field seats, extending the U.S. losing streak to three. According to USA Softball records, that is its longest drought ever; no national team had lost two consecutive games since 1982.
Fernandez struck out 25--breaking the record of 21 set by Smith a day earlier against China--and gave up only two hits. Australia starter Tanya Harding, formerly of UCLA, limited the U.S. to four hits and struck out 17. The U.S. is batting .181, and has held opponents to .078.
"It's do or die for us," Fernandez said. "It's going to be a gut-check of what we're all about, and I think this team is up for the challenge."
The defeat came barely 12 hours after a draining 2-0, 14-inning loss to China Wednesday that stretched the team's offensive slump to one run in 27 innings over two-plus games. In that game, the U.S. wasted a magnificent 21-strikeout complete game by left-hander Smith, leaving 11 runners on base against China pitcher Yanqing Zhang.
Smith gave up two hits and walked only three. She has 27 strikeouts in 19 2/3 scoreless innings and has yet to give up an earned run--but she's 0-2.
"You've got to score runs to win a ballgame," U.S. Coach Ralph Raymond said after the team's loss to China. "We've had some terrific pitching the last couple of days, but without runs, it means absolutely nothing."
Wednesday's game took so long, sprinklers that were timed to go on long after play usually ends suddenly began soaking the outfield grass after the bottom of the 13th inning.
A U.S. fielding error helped China win the 3-hour 57-minute game, just as two errors by second baseman Dot Richardson and one by right fielder Leah O'Brien-Amico enabled Japan to defeat the U.S. in 11 innings Tuesday, 2-1.
China began the 14th inning with a runner on second, Xiaoling Deng. Smith struck out the first two batters, but Xia Mu tapped a bunt up the third base line that stubbornly stayed fair as the U.S. infielders watched it roll. Deng advanced to third on the play.
Xia Mu then hit a shot that deflected off Smith's leg and caromed toward second base, where it was scooped up by second baseman Jennifer McFalls. Her off-balance throw sailed well past first, scoring Deng and Mu.
The U.S. went down in order in the bottom of the inning and finished with three hits. Eleven U.S. runners were left on base, for a total of 31 over the two losses.
Its team batting average in the 1996 Games was .280, but this team will have to get hot to hit .200. In 1996, U.S. batters struck out 29 times in nine games; they've already struck out more often in five games. In 1996, Richardson led the U.S. by striking out six times, but Stacey Nuveman and Sheila Douty have already surpassed that.
Even in its pre-Olympic tour, against clearly inferior opponents such as college all-star teams, two college teams and Women's Pro Softball League squads, the U.S. batted .352. All of that assurance and explosiveness have vanished.
"I'm sure we've opened up a can of worms in terms of teams thinking they can shut us down," Fernandez said Wednesday after stretching her personal hitless streak to 18 with an 0-for-5 performance against China. "It's not often you see USA Softball held to one run over however many innings. . . .
"No one assumed we were going to go undefeated and everyone was going to bat .500. But it's not over. The most important part of the tournament has yet to be played. We're still in this. Once it comes down to four teams, your record doesn't matter. We've got to stay in the top four. No one will remember your record later."
That record only got worse Thursday under a broiling hot sun in this western suburb of Sydney.