YOKOHAMA, Japan — After a 13-year wait, it comes down to this: the United States and Japan, the world’s softball powers, facing off for the gold medal on Tuesday night here.
The last time the two teams were in this position was in 2008, when softball was last an Olympic offering. In the final at the Beijing Games, Japan’s star pitcher Yukiko Ueno outdueled her counterparts — Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott — to lead Japan in a stunning 3-1 upset of the previously invincible United States.
It was the only time a softball gold medal hadn’t been won by the United States, dating back to 1996. So when the sport returned to the Tokyo Games, there was little doubt that the two squads would arrive back at this very position again, for the third time in Olympic softball history, fighting for the top prize.
“We assumed that’s who we would be matched up with,” Osterman said on Monday. “You never know until the games are played out, but we knew that was a strong chance we would end with them.”
On the mound, Osterman and Abbott for the United States and Ueno for Japan — all returning to the Olympics more than a decade after their last appearances — figure to factor heavily in Tuesday’s matchup.
The United States’ offense is led by center fielder Haylie McCleney, who was hitting a tournament best .643 (9 for 14) entering Tuesday and has been intentionally walked in several key spots. Japan is led by Yamato Fujita, who has hit a tournament best three home runs and driven in six.
The United States went 5-0 in robin-robin play and on Monday handed Japan its only loss, 2-1, on a walk-off blast by Kelsey Stewart. But that game didn’t matter because both teams were by far the best of the tournament and had already claimed a spot in Tuesday’s winner-takes-all game.
Earlier in the day, Canada sneaked by Mexico, 3-2, to win the bronze medal, its first medal in Olympic softball.