YOKOHAMA, Japan — After a 13-year wait, of course it came down to this: the world’s softball powers facing off for the gold medal on Tuesday, and the game in the hands of three pitching legends.
The last time the sport and these teams were in this position was 2008, when Japan and its ageless ace Yukiko Ueno stunned the previously invincible United States and its star pitchers, Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott. Softball was subsequently dropped from the permanent Olympic program. It returned this year after a long hiatus but came back looking quite the same.
Finally given the chance to avenge that nagging defeat, the United States just found more of the same frustration. With a few well-placed hits and a lucky bounce, second-ranked Japan toppled the top-ranked United States, 2-0, at Yokohama Baseball Stadium. In the circle for her third Olympics and the last meeting of the three stars on this stage, Ueno, 39, vexed her rivals once more, tossing six scoreless innings.
“Just like 13 years ago,” Ueno said through an interpreter after the game, “we were facing each other in the final.”
Back in 2008, Ueno and Japan stopped the United States from winning its fourth straight gold medal — which would have been all of them since the sport’s Olympic introduction at the 1996 Atlanta Games. So with softball returning for the Tokyo Games, and some of the same cast of characters returning, too, there was little doubt that the two countries would meet yet again and face off a third time for Olympic gold.
Once again for the United States, the team’s only loss of the Olympic tournament came in the game with the highest stakes. Ueno may rely less on power these days than she did when she was 26, but the ace has adapted and thrived, frustrating her opponents and drawing their admiration alike.
“The coolest thing about her is that she constantly reinvents herself and attacks hitters in different ways,” Abbott said after the game. “In some ways, she’s a softball god because things always go her way. She’s definitely a legend and icon in the sport.”
The game began as a duel between two pitchers who have been facing each other for decades, including at the 2004 Athens Olympics: Ueno, who rested during Japan’s 2-1 loss to the United States in the final game of round-robin play on Monday, and Osterman, who entered without having allowed a run in nearly 13 innings this tournament.
But Osterman didn’t look as sharp on Tuesday, pitching around base hits in the first and second innings. When she walked Mana Atsumi to lead off the third inning, United States Coach Ken Erickson brought in Ally Carda, who had previously been effective against Japan.
The move backfired. Japan’s best hitter this tournament, Yamato Fujita, singled off Carda, moved to second base on a sacrifice bunt and then advanced to third on a groundout. When Atsumi beat out a throw to first on a chopper, Fujita scored, giving Japan a 1-0 lead.
Japan doubled its lead in the fifth inning on Fujita’s run-scoring single, which came after Abbott entered in relief of Carda. Given the way Ueno was pitching, two runs felt like enough, but she needed some help to close out the game.
July 27, 2021, 7:09 p.m. ET
After Ueno surrendered a single to lead off the sixth inning, Miu Goto, a budding standout at 20, came on in relief and used a fortuitous ricochet to erase a threat by the United States, which had struggled to score all tournament and had won its previous five games by two runs or fewer.
With runners on first and second, Amanda Chidester lined a ball at Japan’s third baseman Yu Yamamoto. It bounced off Yamamoto’s left wrist and directly to the shortstop Atsumi, who then flipped the ball to second to complete the double play. Her mouth agape, Chidester stared in disbelief.
“I’d never seen that happen,” Osterman said after the game. Added Abbott: “It hits you in the gut. If that goes through, we could probably tie the game or maybe go up.”
Instead, Japan handed Ueno the ball once more for the closing inning. After securing the final out, she threw her arms up and was mobbed by teammates. They later hoised Japan Coach Reika Utsugi into the air.
For Osterman, 38, and Abbott, 35, it marked their final Olympic appearance. Softball is not on the program for Paris in 2024, and both have said they don’t plan to play in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, when softball is expected to be back because the U.S. as the host nation can propose adding sports with national appeal.
After receiving their silver medals, Osterman and Abbott once again called on Olympic officials to reinstate softball as a permanent sport and explained how its precarious status adversely affected future generations.
Ueno echoed the same hope for Olympic softball. She proclaimed her respect for Osterman and Abbott, both of whom she called “very good friends and good opponents” throughout the years.
In terms of her own future, though, Ueno wouldn’t commit to the 2028 Games. But she didn’t sound like she was going anywhere anytime soon.
“Today, when I pitched, I realized how much I enjoy pitching,” she said. “So I would like to continue pitching as long as possible.”
Earlier in the day, Canada sneaked by Mexico, 3-2, to win the bronze medal, its first medal in Olympic softball.