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Thursday, September 23, 2021

The pitcher who may stand between the U.S. and softball gold

IDBS ART GALLERY

Vicky Piatt held a distinction for 13 years: she was the last player to get a hit in an Olympic softball game. And it was made even more special by the fact that it came off Japanese legend Yukiko Ueno during the gold-medal game at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The American pinch-hitter, then known as Vicky Galindo, relishes the opportunity to relive the moment when she drove a ball back up the middle. She’s been asked about it a lot over the last week.

“I was glad to have the opportunity to face her,” Piatt said on Saturday. “It’s the challenge that keeps things interesting. It was my opportunity to say, ‘I’m going to get a hit.’ ‘Keep an eye on me.'”

Piatt, on the other hand, would only make it to first base. Ueno struck out the next three batters, and Japan became the first country other than the United States to win an Olympic gold medal in softball with a 3-1 victory.

The upset was no fluke with Ueno in the circle. Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott have become synonymous with American softball success. But, without Ueno, the best rivalry in international softball would not have existed, and the record books would look very different.

On Tuesday (7 a.m. ET), the three best pitchers of their generation will face off once more for an Olympic gold medal. Ueno has a lot of history on her side.

Consider this: Ueno pitched the first – and still only – seven-inning perfect game in Olympic history at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. At the same Games, she set a record that is unlikely to be broken: Ueno pitched 15 1/3 innings without allowing a hit. Japan went on to win its first Olympic softball medal, a bronze medal.

Ueno held the United States scoreless for eight innings in the 2008 Olympic semifinals before faltering in the ninth. Later that day, she earned a rematch with the US by pitching 12 innings in a 4-3 victory over Australia. She ended up throwing 413 pitches in 28 innings over two days, a feat that hasn’t faded with the passage of time. In the gold-medal game, she allowed just five hits and one run while facing off against Osterman and Abbott, who combined for five hits and three runs.

“This wasn’t supposed to end this way,” Osterman said that day.

Softball had already been dropped from the Olympic programme for the 2012 London Games, so the defeat, which ended Team USA’s 22-game Olympic winning streak, was especially painful for the Americans.

“That’s why it was so devastating,” Piatt explained. “We weren’t going to get a second chance.”

Abbott, Osterman, Piatt, and a few other American players stayed for the 2010 world championships, where they won the gold medal game against Japan. However, because Ueno did not participate, the desire for vengeance was not fully realised.

“You’re still going to get some redemption,” Osterman said. “That’s what we wanted as players. We didn’t downplay it because she wasn’t present.”

Ueno returned to the world championships in 2012, which were held in Canada, but the American roster had been passed on to the next generation. Osterman and Abbott had moved on, but Ueno pitched a complete game in Japan’s 2-1 gold-medal game victory over the United States.

According to US coach Ken Eriksen: “She possesses brute force and is not afraid to employ it. Right now, Ueno, you have to give the nod to as the world’s No. 1 pitcher and power pitcher.”

Eriksen’s case was only strengthened when Ueno defeated the United States 4-1 at the 2014 World Championships in the Netherlands.

“I think she gave everybody the impression that, you know what, [the Americans] are human beings and we can be beaten,” Karen Johns, a Team USA assistant coach in 2008, said of Ueno in 2014. “I believe she was able to demonstrate to the world that anything is possible. It takes a lot of work and preparation to beat the best team in the world, but it is possible.”

With Abbott back in the mix at the 2018 World Championships in Chiba, Japan, the US finally got some retaliation against Ueno. In the 10th inning, a Kelsey Stewart single off Ueno gave the US a 7-6 victory.

At those world championships, the United States clinched a spot in the Tokyo Olympics, prompting Osterman to come out of retirement, citing “unfinished business.”

Another chapter in the sport’s greatest rivalry will be written on Tuesday, on Ueno’s home turf. The three pitchers, who have a long and tangled history, will rematch, with the winner receiving a gold medal. Ueno turned 39 last week, Osterman is 38, and Abbott turns 36 on Wednesday.

When asked to scout the three most celebrated pitchers at the Games, Piatt stated that Osterman has the best movement, Abbott has the most velocity, and Ueno is a mix of the two. She claims that all three are world-class competitors.

In Tokyo, all three have been spectacular. The American lefties have yet to surrender a well-earned run. Abbott is 3-0 with 29 strikeouts in 18 innings pitched. Osterman has a 2-0 record with 15 strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings. Ueno has pitched 16 1/3 innings, allowing three earned runs while striking out 21 batters.

The United States (5-0) and Japan (4-1) met in the final game of the round-robin round on Sunday night, and the United States won 2-1 thanks to a Stewart walk-off home run in the seventh. Abbott and Osterman pitched 1 2/3 innings of relief. Ueno never appeared in the game. Both teams had already secured their places in the gold-medal game, but the United States’ victory meant that they would be the home team on Tuesday and would bat first.

Haylie McCleney has been the tournament’s hot hitter, batting.643 and scoring four of the US’ nine runs. Yamato Fujita has hit three home runs for Japan, the most of any player in Tokyo.

The pitchers, on the other hand, will take centre stage.

In 2008, Ueno won the last softball game of the Olympics. In 2021, she became the first woman to win the race. Now she’s hoping for the final time. Softball will not be included in the Paris Olympics in 2024, but it is expected to return for the Games in Los Angeles in 2028 and Brisbane in 2032.

“I’d like to leave everything out here,” Ueno explained. “So that I don’t have any regrets at the end of the Games.”

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