BLACKTOWN, Australia - Just when the United States women's softball team thought it couldn't get any worse at the Summer Olympics, it did today.
First, the Americans had to face Tanya Harding. No, not the skater, but the pitcher and leader of the green-and-gold-clad hometown team, Australia.
And then, with two outs in the bottom of the 13th, Australia left fielder Peta Edebone slammed a shocking, two-run home run off starter Lisa Fernandez to give Australia a 2-1 victory and extend the U.S. losing streak to three games at the Games.
Edebone's blast ignited a wild celebration on the field and in the stands as Australian players wept after the dramatic triumph that was punctuated by Harding's 18-strikeout performance.
The Americans, staggered by their third straight extra-inning defeat, and second within 24 hours, stood around in utter disbelief at the extraordinary turn of events, as the reigning Olympic champions were suddenly on the ropes in the tournament.
Despite allowing only two hits and striking out 25, Fernandez absorbed a bitter defeat, which was a virtual replay of a loss she suffered against Australia in the 1996 Olympics, when she had a perfect game broken up by a homer.
"Sitting in the locker room, I thought to myself, 'It can't happen twice,' " she said. "But it did."
Fernandez said she allowed the homer on a drop ball that didn't drop. "It was supposedly a drop ball, supposedly down and in," she said. "She got under it. I made a mistake."
The U.S. team forged a 1-0 lead in the top of the 13th as Christie Ambrosi flicked a bloop single to left, driving in Michelle Smith.
After nine innings, the teams opened every at-bat with a runner at second as part of softball's drive to create scoring opportunities.
The Americans (2-3) are not yet out of the medal round, with preliminary games remaining against Italy and New Zealand.
But the luster of their 1996 gold-medal triumph is gone.
And they vow to fight back."" "I've never been on a team with a bigger challenge," Fernandez said. "We have to win the next five games straight."
If your idea of athletic fun is watching two pitchers duel in an area about the size of a living room, you've come to the right place.
Women's softball gives every rubber-armed dreamer a chance to be like Randy Johnson.
Poised 40 feet from the plate, spinning and feigning and finally hurling the ball at up to 70 miles per hour, the pitchers aren't just the dominant players of the game - sometimes they're the only ones who matter.
Usually, it's the American women who have the big arms.
But at these Olympics, the world has caught up to the reigning gold-medal champions.
First, it was Japan that won, 2-1, in 11 innings and ended America's 112-game winning streak.
Then, last night, it was China's turn to dent the Americans, winning, 2-0, in a 14-inning game the highlight of which occurred at midnight when the automatic sprinkler system fired up while the teams were on the field.