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United States completes swing for softball gold


SYDNEY, Australia - Laura Berg's motivations were many when she swung at a pitch and sent a line drive up and into the mist in the eighth inning of the Olympic softball competition's gold-medal game last night.

Berg, the center fielder for the United States, was motivated to atone for missing a ball she felt she should have caught earlier in the game, a ball that wound up going over the fence and giving Japan the early lead.

She also was motivated to send a 33rd birthday present to her fiancM-i, Eric Kidd, who suffered a spinal cord injury last year and is paralyzed from the chest down.

But her main motivation was to find a way to get pinch runner Jennifer McNalls home from second base with the winning run.

With one swing, she accomplished all she wanted to do.

Japan's left fielder, Shiori Koseki, misplayed the hard-hit ball, allowing McNalls to race home and give the U.S. a 2-1 win and a gold medal that came a lot harder than expected.

"We were really unlucky throughout the tournament, and the luck finally went our way." U.S. second baseman Dot Richardson said.

Koseki , who was charged with an error, was in tears as she left the field and the U.S. players celebrated winning a second gold medal to go with the one they won in Atlanta four years ago, when softball was played in the Olympics for the first time.

The Americans won the gold by a cumulative score of 41-7 in Atlanta and carried a 112-game winning streak into Sydney, but they lost three games in a row during the round-robin phase and barely qualified for the medal round. A 10-inning win over China and a 1-0 defeat of Australia advanced them to the finals against a Japanese team that not only was undefeated in the tournament, but also had never trailed.

"We knew it was going to be a lot harder to win another gold medal, but we never expected to struggle as much as we did," said Lisa Fernandez, who threw every U.S. pitch last night and got the win just 24 hours after throwing a complete-game shutout to win the semifinal. "But the best teams find a way to win, and that's what we did."

Reika Utsugi hit one of Fernandez's pitches over the center-field fence in the fourth last night, giving Japan a 1-0 lead and the inside track on the gold medal. Starter Mariko Masubuchi hadn't allowed an earned run in the entire tournament, and as U.S. coach Ralph Raymond said later, the U.S. team "didn't have a lot of sticks."

Berg, 25, from Santa Fe Springs, Calif., went back on the home run ball and jumped for it, but missed.

"It was a hard play and I didn't miss by much, but it's a play I absolutely should have made," Berg said. "After that, I had to find some way to make it up."

She got the chance later because the Americans pushed across the tying run in the bottom of the fifth with their only hit of the game. Masubuchi hit Michele Smith with a pitch with one out, and U.S. catcher Stacey Nuveman's two-out single to right-center scored the run.

Japanese ace Juri Takayama came on in relief in the sixth and struck out the side in the seventh, but she lost her control in the eighth and walked two before Berg came to the plate with one out.

Berg said she wasn't surprised to see the Japanese outfielders cheat in to try to keep the runners from advancing. "I'm a slap hitter," she said. "But Ralph [Raymond] told me to go up and hit away. I just did what I was told."

Koseki broke in on the ball initially, then realized she had misjudged it and started to backpedal. She leaped for it at the last second and touched it with the tip of her glove, but it rolled out as she fell. Even though McNalls had to wait to see if the catch was made, she scored easily from second.

"I thought it was a hit when it left the bat," Berg said. "Koseki gave it a good try, but I've never been so happy in my life to see a ball come out of a glove and hit the ground."

An assistant coach at Fresno State, Berg met her future fiancM-i in 1997 and become engaged to him the next year. But last summer, Kidd took an awkward fall while horsing around in his living room and broke two vertebrae. He wants to call off the engagement, Berg said. She doesn't.

"He doesn't think it's fair for me to have to take care of him for the rest of my life," she said. "But he has always been there for me through all of this softball, and I'm going to be there for him. I can't wait to call him later tonight. It's his birthday, and he said the only present he wanted was a gold medal."

Now Berg has one, along with the rest of a U.S. team that rebounded from its three straight losses by winning five straight games to end the tournament.

"Nothing came easily," Richardson said. "But we still ended up with the only thing that matters. We still got the gold."

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