USA wins World Championship over Japan

Sun 12 Aug 2018


By Bob Fromer

Sunday 12 August –  The United States won its second straight Women’s Softball World Championship on Sunday, defeating Japan 7-6 in a pulsating 10-inning game, and negating a heroic pitching performance by Japan’s 36-year-old legend Yukiko Ueno.

After the US had beaten Japan 4-3 on Saturday in the playoff round with a walk-off hit in the bottom of the seventh inning, Japan had to play Canada early on Sunday afternoon to get to the gold medal game, and Ueno pitched all seven innings as Japan won 3-0.

Then, against the US, Ueno pitched all 10 innings, and perhaps that was asking too much against a team as potent offensively as the United States, even for one of the greatest pitchers in softball history.

It’s typical of Japan’s approach that Ueno kept going back out to the circle inning after inning, just as Yamato Fujita did when the US won on Saturday.  And it’s typical of USA Head Coach Ken Eriksen’s strategy that the Americans deployed five pitchers during the final, some for longer stints and some for shorter, with some pitchers coming back to the circle a second time during the game.

This approach by Eriksen worked when the US regained the World Championship in 2016 in Canada, and it worked over this weekend as they retained it in front of a crowd of more than 12,000 in the Zozo Marine Stadium in Chiba.


Stalemate

In a final in which both teams constantly threatened, Japan took a 1-0 lead in the top of the second inning against US starter Keilani Ricketts when Haruka Agatsuma singled through the left side to score Mana Atsuma.

Japan stretched the lead to 2-0 in the top of the third inning when Saki Yamazaki singled and Yu Yamamoto lashed a triple into the right field corner.

In the bottom of the third inning, however, the US used their power to take the lead.  Haylie McCleney and Alison Aguilar singled and, with two out, Yukiko Ueno had a long battle with US shortstop Delaney Spaulding before Spaulding hit a vicious line drive to right field that never got any height, but shot over the fence for a three-run home run, leaving Ueno shaking her head.

There was mounting tension in the crowd as the game wore on and the US still had that one-run advantage.  But in the top of the sixth inning, with Rachael Garcia now pitching for the US, Yamato Fujita hit the first pitch of the inning high and far over the centre field fence to tie the game.


Extra innings

Both teams bunted the tiebreak runner to third in the eighth inning, and managed to bring her home, moving the score to 4-4.

Neither team could score in the ninth inning.

In the top of the tenth inning, Japan scored two runs to take what could have been a decisive 6-4 lead against US Olympic veteran Monica Abbott.  They came when Yamato Fujita hit her second home run of the game, with Mana Atsumi, the tiebreak runner, trotting home ahead of her.

But the US refused to give up against a tiring Yukiko Ueno in the bottom of the 10th inning.  With Alison Aguilar as the tiebreak runner on second base, the inning started quietly: Valerie Arioto bounced out to second base, with Aguilar moving to third.  But her run meant nothing, and the Japanese bench was daring to sense victory.

Their anticipation didn’t last long.  Delaney Spalding flared a single to right field, driving in Aguilar, and Michelle Moultrie hit a hard ground ball single through the right side of the infield, pushing Spaulding to third.

Yukiko Ueno drew on everything she had left and struck out Kasey Cooper swinging on a great rise ball for the second out.

Aubree Munro was the last US hope, and Ueno tried to get her to fish for something out of the zone, but Munro wouldn’t bite.  The count went to 3-0, then 3-1.  The next pitch, however, had too much of the plate and Munro lined a ground rule double on one hop over the fence in left centre field.  Spalding scored to tie the game at 6-6, and the US had runners on second and third with the very dangerous Kelsey Stewart at the plate.

Stewart took strike one, then swung at and missed a rise ball for strike two.  The next pitch was on the outside corner and the left-handed Stewart slapped at it, to protect as much as anything else.  But Stewart hit the ball hard on the ground, just over third base and into the left field corner, with the plate umpire frantically gesturing “fair ball”. 

Suddenly, the epic struggle was over.  The Americans did the dogpile in the pitcher’s circle.  Yukiko Ueno walked slowly off the field.  You have to wonder if we will see her on this stage again, though the 2020 Olympic softball tournament in Japan is just two years away.

The two encounters that the US and Japan had over this weekend showed everything that is great about the game, and this was a final that will long be remembered.
 

GB at the Worlds

Meanwhile, what of the GB Women’s performance at the World Championship?

This has been a mixed summer for GB female fastpitch teams – the Under-19s and Under-22s that competed in European Championships and the GB Women’s Team that competed in Japan.

All three teams underachieved in terms of their goals for tournament placing, but all three teams played excellent softball at times and competed on level terms with the top teams in Europe and, up to a point, in the world.  There is no question that there are some exciting players in our programme at all age levels.

The GB Under-19s and Under-22s had a series of close and exciting games with the Dutch, the Italians, the Czechs and the new force at this level, the Irish, at both European Championships, with many games going to extra innings.  GB teams won a couple of these games but lost most of them, and we have yet to develop the mindset to win close games against countries that used to be regarded as better than us, even if the gap has essentially closed. 

That’s an important step we have yet to take, and a contributory factor is undoubtedly our lack of training and competition time together compared to our main European rivals.  Due to the nature of the GB programme and our lack of funding, this will always be hard to overcome, but we need to find ways to do it.

The World Championship in Japan was especially frustrating for a GB Team aiming to reach the Championship playoff round for the first time in our seventh appearance in the tournament.  Two 1-0 defeats to China and Italy, where we out-hit our opponents in each game, were the difference between success and failure in achieving that target.

We fared less well than in the recent past in games against the world’s top teams – in this case, Canada, Japan and Australia.  But in terms of the overriding goal for the GB programme at the present time – qualification for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo – those results and that gap are irrelevant.

When it comes to the Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifier in just over a year’s time, the teams we need to overcome to get back to Japan in 2020 are primarily the Netherlands, Italy and the Czech Republic, along with, probably, Russia and Greece.  The top six European teams in next summer’s European Championship will get to contest the Qualifier, along with the top two teams from Africa.

GB finished third in the 2017 European Championship, behind Italy and the Netherlands, but recent results and developments suggest that we may be closer to both those teams at this point than we were last summer.  GB was the better team in the 1-0 loss to Italy in Japan, and was somewhat unlucky to lose the game.  We will certainly not fear the Italians next summer.

We didn’t play the Netherlands in Japan, but from their peak of a fourth-place finish at the 2016 World Championship in Canada, the Dutch have finished eighth this time, and their performance overall was down on two years ago.  The Dutch are still probably the best team in Europe, but there is no doubt that the gap has closed at senior level, and below that, the Dutch, Italians, GB and the Czechs are playing essentially on level terms.

What all this means is that our long-shot odds of qualifying for Tokyo, which would be a game-changer for softball in Britain, have certainly not gotten any longer based on results and performances this summer, and if anything may have got slightly shorter.

There is everything to play for next year for the GB Women and GB Softball.


Final standings

Here are the final standings from the 2018 WBSC Women’s World Championship:

1 – USA
2 – Japan
3 – Canada
4 – Australia
5 – Puerto Rico
6 – Mexico
7 – Italy
8 – Netherlands
9 – Chinese Taipei
10 – China
11 – Great Britain
12 – Venezuela
13 –New Zealand
14 – Philippines
15 – South Africa
16 -- Botswana

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