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U.S. boots it to Japan


BLACKTOWN, Australia - Maybe they're no longer the fresh, fun all-America bunch that won the women's softball gold in Atlanta in 1996.

Maybe they've turned to arbitration and sniped a bit in the media during the pre-Olympic buildup.

Yet put 'em in spikes, watch 'em turn double plays, smash home runs and throw perfect games, and normally opponents fall under the spell of the U.S. women's softball team.

But early today at the Summer Olympics, the Americans' 112-game winning streak was broken by Japan, 2-1, in a tense, 11-inning epic.

They lost when the team's public face, second baseman Dot Richardson, committed two of the team's three 11th-inning errors that allowed both Japanese runs.

They lost after failing to unload the bases four times in the first nine innings - and stranding 20 runners.

And when it ended, it looked like Japan's version of "Miracle on Ice," the players piling out of the dugout for a celebration.

"You can't make mental mistakes, and we made a carload," said U.S. coach Ralph Raymond.

The Americans are still gold-medal favorites, but they'll have to fight into the medal round, with back-to-back games against China and Australia, the latter the last to beat the United States back in the round robin of the 1998 world championships.

"We made some mistakes, and we'll bounce back," said U.S. relief pitcher Michelle Smith, who plays professionally in Japan and speaks fluent Japanese.

"I hope they do great in the rest of the tournament, except when they're facing me," Smith said of Japan. "It was a good battle."

The U.S.-Japan encounter was punctuated by softball's version of penalty kicks, a bizarre tiebreaker after nine innings in which each team gets to start off an inning with a runner on second.

In the top of the 11th with one out and a runner on third, Haruka Saito bounced a grounder to second. Richardson bobbled the ball and overthrew first, enabling Emi Naito to score.

Misako Ando then hit a liner that was booted by Leah O'Brien-Amico, leaving runners on first and third. When Ando tried to steal second, Richardson cut across the field to take the throw, dropped the ball and enabled Saito to race home.

In the bottom of the inning, Sheila Douty's single to center scored Lisa Fernandez and moved Crystl Bustos to third. Douty tried to go to second on a throw to the plate but was thrown out.

Japan's spark-plug reliever, Juri Takayama, then seized control of the game. She struck out Jennifer Brundage and then Stacey Nuveman, igniting a wild celebration among Japan's jubilant players.

"My mistakes cost us," Richardson said.

They may be softball's stars, but that doesn't mean the Americans can't be beat.

They draw an interesting bunch of fans to a bandbox stadium tucked next to a four-lane road in a western Sydney suburb. Whether in the Southern Hemisphere or the Northern, the American team lures families with young kids who lug around Pokemon gear and look as if they should be watching cartoons instead of Olympic sports.

But this is a team with clout. Among the spectators today was U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala, who put off her departure from Australia so she could see the Americans and throw out the first ball.

"This is my sport," said Shalala, who played in the West Boulevard Annie Oakley Pigtail League in Cleveland.

"You ask George Steinbrenner, I was the best shortstop he ever had," she added, recalling that long before Steinbrenner owned the New York Yankees, he was a recreation director who came up to her and the other young girls and said, "You little girls really know how to play baseball. All you have to do is learn how to throw overhand and learn how to slide."

Softball sure has come a long way since Shalala's youth, and it's the American women who have led the way in a fast-pitch era, winning the first Olympic gold, in Atlanta.

This year, the Americans have a new star in big-hitting shortstop Bustos, whose slugging average would put Mark McGwire's to shame and whose braid peeks from under her batting helmet and drops halfway down her back.

They've still got Fernandez, the pitching ace of the 1996 team who is still the best, but only part of a staff of no-hit wonders who include Lori Harrigan, who opened the Olympics with a solo no-hitter.

And they've got Richardson, the orthopedic surgeon who will not quit, much to the dismay of some of the country's other top second basemen. One, Julie Smith, who is not on the team, filed arbitration to get the selection process changed. Another, Jennifer McFalls, sits on the bench and complained about her lack of playing time.

But beyond the personal tales, this is a tough team. And at the Olympics, they'll have to get even tougher to regain the gold.

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