Practically speaking, this is what Team USA Softball’s walk-off win over Japan on Sunday night meant: They get to bat second in a rematch for the gold medal. But psychologically, Kelsey Stewart’s long fly over the right field fence was an enormous gift to the rest of her team, as a squad that was struggling to hit the ball as it looks to unseat the defending champs used its final swing before the championship game to win all the momentum in this rivalry. Now they just have to do it for real.
The USA-Japan game to close out pool play was going to be officially meaningless from the start, except for determining which team would have “home field advantage” … in Japan. Both teams went undefeated against all the others in their first four games, which in and of itself was enough to clinch their spots in the final. And so, bizarrely, because the schedule didn’t pit them against each other until the end, these teams got to play an exhibition game against each other before the real thing on Tuesday at 7 a.m. ET.
(Quick side note: Jessica Mendoza on the Sunday broadcast said “there are rumors” that pool play could decide the medals if the incoming typhoon prevents the gold medal game from being played. With so much time left in these Olympics, that would be one of the dumbest and most frustrating decisions imaginable, and I’ll cross that bridge only if we come to it.)
The relative unimportance of this contest was reflected by the pitching matchup—Ally Carda went 5.1 innings for the U.S. after not featuring in any of the first four games, while Yamato Fujita faced every batter for Japan after just two innings in the entire tournament prior. But that doesn’t mean it was short on dramatics. In fact, it followed a similar blueprint as the U.S.’s other low-scoring wins, with one big difference: The Americans spent most of the game trailing. The U.S. came into the game having given up only one run so far—in extra innings of a 2-1 thriller over Australia—but in the first, an error, a sacrifice, a single, and a passed ball all combined to give Japan the 1-0 lead at the very start.
On the other side, the U.S. continued its tournament-long failure to execute with runners on base, hitting into double plays in both the fourth and fifth innings until finally, in the sixth, they strung together a couple of baserunners and Valerie Arioto knocked in an RBI single. Even then, however, Delaney Spaulding flied out to the wall with the bases loaded to cut the rally short and keep the game tied 1-1.
The story of the U.S.’s Olympics can be told almost entirely through its run differential, as pitching standouts Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott have put the team on their arms and carried them to an undefeated record, despite the fact that the offense’s nine runs scored ranks fourth out of six teams at the games. But just as it looked like the pitching, once again, would have to try and hold onto the deadlock through extras, Stewart came up huge and ended things on the second pitch of the bottom of the seventh. What she did doesn’t have much of a parallel in any other sports, so the best I can come up with is that it’s like in pro wrestling, when they have the challenger pin the champion in a tag match before their title shot. And it’s also, separate from any other context, just an awesome experience for Stewart.
“It’s like you dream about when you’re a little kid, about hitting a home run at the Olympics, let alone a walk-off,” Stewart said afterwards.
And it means even more because she has no idea if she’ll be back. She was 13 years old the last time softball had a place in the Olympics, in 2008, and even though it returned for 2020 because of its popularity in Japan, it won’t reappear until 2028 in Los Angeles at the earliest. That makes Tuesday’s gold medal game not just a bitter and long-awaited rematch of the last one—and one that will likely see the exact same pitchers take the mound for both sides—but also the highest-stakes softball game of the decade, and maybe longer. And it makes Stewart’s home run, as great a personal moment as it is, a memory that will pale in comparison to whatever happens on Tuesday. As long as it doesn’t rain, apparently.