Kelsey Stewart's dramatic walk-off home run in pool play against Japan on Sunday turned out not to be a good omen for USA Softball as they geared up to face the same opponent in the gold medal game. Instead, it was the final run that the Americans scored at these Olympics, as they fell 2-0 to Japan on Tuesday morning and had to settle for silver.
Thirteen years after she was the winning pitcher in Japan's 3-1 victory over the U.S. in the climax of the 2008 Olympics, Yukiko Ueno once again carried her team to gold. Ueno, now 39 years old, threw six innings of shutout ball (innings 1–5, and then 7) to best the U.S. mound trio of Osterman, Carda, and Abbott.
Despite only three hits, the U.S. had its opportunities to score—most notably in the first inning, where they got two different runners to third base but couldn't plate either. The first, Janie Reed, hit a triple that just missed clearing the wall, but got tagged out on a play at the plate following a dropped third strike.
The beneficiary of that dropped strike, Amanda Chidester, took further advantage of some crossed wires between Ueno and her catcher to take two more bases, but Valerie Arioto stranded her by striking out to end the inning.
Their last solid opportunity to score came in the sixth—the one inning that featured a pitcher other than Ueno. With runners on first and second and one out, Chidester killed the brewing rally by hitting into one of the most unbelievably frustrating double plays you'll ever see—one that deflected off the Japanese third baseman before it ended up in the shortstop's glove.
Japan, meanwhile, earned its runs in the fourth and the fifth and charged them to Ally Carda, easily the least experienced of the three American pitchers. It was textbook small-ball in both cases. A single, a sac bunt, a groundout, and a single plated Yamato Fujita for the first earned run allowed by the U.S. all Olympics. Then a Yu Yamamoto single, a wild pitch, and a Fujita RBI single, all with two outs, doubled the advantage next inning.
Japan left nine runners on base, and the final margin could have been a lot larger had it not been for some really impressive defense by the U.S. Good execution by Delaney Spaulding on a two-out grounder helped strand a runner at third in the opening inning, while in the very next frame Michelle Moultrie made a great catch at the wall in right to end the inning with a runner on second.
In the top of the seventh, Reed made a jaw-droppingly athletic grab to rob a home run, which kept hope alive, however briefly, for the U.S.
But those plays don't count for any runs, and offense was what the U.S. badly needed all tournament.
This one hurts, because the old cliche of "There's always next year!"—or even next Olympiad—doesn't apply here. Softball's appearance in Tokyo was a one-off, and it will be 2028 at the earliest before either of these teams gets a shot at another gold medal. For the U.S., after winning gold in the first three editions of Olympic softball, this loss means they will go through at least a 24-year first-place drought. That's an entire generation of players and then some, and Cat Osterman, who un-retired for these Olympics, embodied that lack in a very emotional, very admirable post-game interview.
Revenge will have to be a dish served very, very, very cold.