Tokyo Olympics Softball: Five Takeaways From Day 2
As expected, the United States and Japan have been the best teams so far at the Olympic Games. But neither has had an easy road to a 2-0 start. The U.S. pushed across a single run to beat Canada, and the Japanese outlasted Mexico in extra innings. The No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in the world are still a good bet to face each other for the gold medal, but the other four countries have proved they belong as well.
Here are five things we learned from the second day of Olympic softball action.
Team USA’s hitters are still struggling—except one. The Americans managed just one run on seven hits against four Canadian pitchers, after scoring just twice in their opener against Italy. Sara Gronewegen, Jenna Caira, Lauren Regula and Danielle Lawrie had their way with the U.S. bats for most of the day, with Team USA’s lone run coming on Amanda Chidester’s RBI single in the fifth inning to score Haylie McCleney. McCleney, the leadoff hitter, is the lone American who has seen the ball well, having reached base in all seven plate appearances through two games.
But with the way the U.S. is pitching, it may not need to hit much. A day after 38-year-old Cat Osterman threw six shutout innings to earn the win over Italy, fellow lefty Monica Abbott, who will turn 36 next week, did her one better. Abbott tossed a complete-game shutout as the Americans beat Canada 1-0. Abbott struck out nine and walked three (including one intentionally) and allowed just one hit. That hit, a sixth-inning, pinch-hit double by Groenewegen, ended up producing the most exciting play of the game. McCleney hit second baseman Ali Aguilar with a great cutoff throw from center field, and Aguilar fired a strike to home plate to cut down pinch-runner Joey Lye trying to score from first, keeping Team USA in the lead.
Mexico showed impressive fight despite coming up short against Japan. The Mexicans twice came back to tie the game against Yukiko Ueno, one of the world’s best pitchers, before falling 3-2 in eight innings. Yamato Fujita opened the scoring for Japan with a second-inning solo shot, but Anissa Urtez—Chidester’s fiancée—responded with a home run of her own in the fifth. After Japan retook the lead in the bottom of the fifth, Urtez evened the score again with a seventh-inning single to center.
Mexico couldn’t complete the comeback, though. Miu Goto entered in relief of Ueno and escaped jams in both the seventh and eighth, and Japan walked it off in the bottom of the eighth against Danielle O’Toole when Mana Atsumi drove in Eri Yamada, who had started the inning at second base thanks to the international tiebreak rule.
Pitching continued to dominate in the nightcap. After Australia’s 1-0 win over Italy, losing teams have scored just three runs in six games with four shutouts. Winning teams haven’t been all that much better—apart from Japan’s 8-1, run-rule win in the opener, no team has scored more than four. The Aussies got in the win column thanks to a masterful performance from Kaia Parnaby, who struck out just two, but allowed only four hits in 6.2 innings. Parnaby outdueled Italy’s Greta Cecchetti, who allowed the game’s only run in the second inning when Jade Wall’s single scored Taylah Tsitsikronis, but also allowed just four hits in a six-inning complete game. After Italy put the tying and go-ahead runs on base in the seventh, Australia relieved Parnaby with Ellen Roberts, who struck out Marta Gasparotto to secure the victory.
The pace-of-play rules are working. All games in the Olympics are using a 20-second pitch clock, with the penalty of an automatic ball if the pitcher does not deliver within that time. Hitters are required to keep at least one foot in the batter’s box at all times. These rules have definitely helped speed up the games—none of the first six contests went much beyond the two-hour mark. It would be controversial, but it would definitely be interesting to see what kind of impact rules like these would have in college softball, where the average game time has increased considerably in recent years.