Japan calls on veteran pitcher Yukiko Ueno in relief and hands the United States women their only defeat in the event for the second straight time
By ARNIE LESHIN, Santa Fe Today
Same place, same score, same result.
And once again it was Japan’s Yukiko Ueno to the rescue and once more denying Team USA the World Cup of Softball championship.
To the dismay of the fans in Oklahoma City Sunday afternoon, fast balling right-hander Ueno took to the circle in relief, and for the second straight year her country reins as champion in a 2-1 final identical to the one last year.
If the 34-year-old Ueno is a familiar culprit, so is the Japan team that rises to the occasion when it counts most. In back-to-back years here, it lost to the USA a first time and then responded in the title game.
And Ueno has been the catalyst for the third time. In the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, she pitched Japan over the USA in the final to claim the gold medal. That was a shocker, now it’s no longer a surprise.
And now the world’s No. 1 and 2 teams will become even more familiar, especially for the young red, white and blue ladies who faced more experienced Japan for the first time. Now they head for California for a pair
of exhibition contests before traveling across the Pacific for a 3-game series versus Japan in Tokyo.
That’s in late August for what is known as the Japan Cup, but before that there’s business to attend to in early August in the Dominican Republic.
That’s the qualifying round for a berth in next year’s world championships. It’s a 20-nation field and the USA must finish among the top five to qualify. But its changes are good, with maybe only Japan, Canada and Australia providing the biggest tests.
Then again, its chances looked good to win this World Cup after going 7-0 through the tournament, and that included a 5-0 triumph over Japan behind the route-going hurling of righty Danielle O’Toole, who allowed only one hit while striking out eight.
Same as last year, when the USA turned back Japan in the opening rounds and then lost to it in the championship game.
This time, the USA started right-hander Jessica Moore and it was scoreless before Japan scored twice in the third frame to go up 2-0, than faced a bases-loaded, one out situation in the fourth with one run already in and the lead cut in half.
In came Ueno to strike out Hayley McCleney on a 74 mph pitch, got Kelsey Stewart out on a blooper to shortstop to end the threat and the scoreboard operator had the rest of the afternoon off.
While Delanie Gourley, Kelly Barnhill and O’Toole held Japan scoreless the rest of the way, the USA did keep it interesting. After leaving the bases full in the second inning, it became Ueno time in the fourth.
With runners on first and third with one out, Aubree Munro singled in the run. Janie Takeda than singled to fill the bags, and that’s when Japan gave the ball to Uneo.
Then with two down in the bottom of the seventh, Stewart doubled to the wall in centerfield, but Ueno struck out Ali Aguilar on a 3-2 fastball and her country now had its fourth title in the annual event. It was the first loss for the USA and Japan’s lone setback was to the host team.
Ueno, who struck out six, retired 10 in a row before Stewart’s two-bagger. Moore took the setback.
And this is just the start in the circle for the two nations.
It will be Japan hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics and it will be softball returning to the big show that comes around every four years. It was not played at the last two Olympics in London and Rio de Janeiro, but support for the popular sport brought it back.
By than, USA hopes that maybe Uneo has retired. Wishful thinking perhaps.