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Tokyo Olympics Softball: Five Takeaways From Day 1

(Photo by Yuichi Masuda/Getty Images)

For the first time since 2008, softball is finally back on the world’s biggest stage. Despite rising COVID-19 cases, the Olympic Games officially began Wednesday in Japan (Tuesday night in the United States).

While the first day of action offered few surprises—the United States, Japan and Canada, the three highest ranked teams in the world, were all victorious—seeing the best talent in the world compete at such a high level was certainly a sight for sore eyes.

Here are five things we learned from the first day of Olympic softball action.

The hosts were ready to go. Japan opened the tournament with an 8-1, run-rule drubbing of Australia at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium, 183 miles north of Tokyo. Yukiko Ueno, who helped the Japanese win gold in Beijing in 2008, got the win in the circle, and she and reliever Miu Goto were backed by a trio of long balls. Minori Naito gave Japan the lead with a two-run blast in the third inning, Yamato Fujita hit a mammoth two-run shot an inning later and Yu Yamamoto ended things early with a home run in the fifth.

The Americans’ veteran arms still have it. Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott both represented the United States at the 2008 Games, winning a silver medal, and Osterman won gold in Athens in 2004. Both are still dominant well into their 30s. In Team USA’s 2-0 victory over Italy, Osterman allowed just one hit—an Andrea Filler single—through six innings of work, striking out nine. Abbott struck out all three batters she faced in a perfect seventh to earn the save.

Team USA has some work to do offensively. Two runs in the Olympic opener wasn’t exactly an inspiring debut from the American bats. Michelle Moultrie’s single in the fourth inning drove in Valerie Arioto for the game’s first run, and Janie Reed’s sacrifice fly scored Aubree Munro an inning later. But Italian pitcher Greta Cecchetti nearly matched Osterman. The former Texas A&M Corpus Christi hurler did not allow a hit in the first three innings and kept the U.S. hitters off balance for most of the game.

Mark Smith’s gamble paid off. Instead of going with 2008 Olympian Danielle Lawrie, Canada’s head coach went with former Minnesota star Sara Groenewegen to start the opening game against Mexico. And Groenewegen delivered, tossing four hitless innings with one walk and three strikeouts in a 4-0 win for the Canadians. Canada put up two runs on four hits in the first, then added one in the middle innings with a solo homer by Jenn Salling and an RBI single from Kelsey Harshman.

The aesthetics aren’t perfect. Playing the Olympics in an empty stadium—while necessary for public health—isn’t ideal. Hearing the home crowd get behind Team Japan in the opening game would have been something special, and the crowds would have definitely livened up the TV broadcasts. It’s also somewhat disorienting to watch softball on a field designed for baseball. The bases are just standing in the middle of the infield artificial turf, and the fence is obviously temporary. The Olympics treats softball and baseball as one sport, so it’s understandable that they want to conserve space, but it doesn’t make for the best viewing experience.

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