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U.S. Team ’s Softball Streak Ends

September 19, 2000

BLACKTOWN, Australia (AP) _ When the competition got tougher and the game got longer, the U.S. softball team found itself in unfamiliar territory.

Stretched to 11 innings for the first time in two years, the Americans gave up a pair of unearned runs on Dot Richardson’s two errors to hand Japan a 2-1 victory Tuesday and snap a 112-game winning streak.

``This isn’t a question about pride, or ego, or a winning streak. This is a question of learning from our mistakes,″ Richardson said after taking responsibility for the loss.

``When you look at our record, there aren’t too many games when we’re put in situations like today. I’d rather (learn) now than in the gold medal game.″

The game was the Americans’ longest since playing 12 innings against Australia in the 1998 world championships; that was also their last loss. Even with the end of the winning streak, though, the defending Olympic champions’ have their medal hopes intact.

The top four in the eight-team tournament advance to the medal round, and the favored Americans (2-1) can still finish first. If not, second is just as good; the third and fourth-place teams would have to win an extra game to win the gold medal.

``We’re going to bounce back from it,″ said Michelle Smith, who struck out eight and allowed just two hits and two unearned runs in 5 2-3 innings of relief. ``We have to.″

The United States loaded the bases in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. In the 10th and 11th, when each team starts with a runner on second, the Americans had two runners on each time.

But they couldn’t manage the hit they needed off reliever Juri Takayama _ stranding 20 runners in all.

In the 11th, Japan (3-0) moved its free baserunner to third on a groundout. Haruka Saito hit a grounder to Richardson; she bobbled the ball, then recovered before throwing it wild to first base and allowing the game’s first run to score.

Richardson’s second error followed when she tried to cut off a throw to second to guard against a double steal. The ball rolled into center field and another runner came home to make it 2-0.

``I apologized to everyone because I feel responsible,″ said Richardson, an orthopedic surgeon who was the star of the Atlanta Games. ``The two mistakes I made cost us the game.″

Even so, the Americans had another chance in the bottom of the 11th when Crystl Bustos and Sheila Douty singled to score the free baserunner and make it 2-1. But Douty was caught going to second, then Takayama struck out Jennifer Brundage and Stacey Nuveman looking to end the game and put the Americans in yet another unfamiliar situation: a loss.

``When we step on the field, we don’t assume anything,″ Smith said when asked if they were more surprised, or disappointed. ``We know we have to execute. We didn’t today.″

Smith, who is a four-time MVP of Japan’s top professional league and was facing some of her former teammates, had been scheduled to start against China on Wednesday. U.S. coach Ralph Raymond said he would decide overnight whether she would pitch against China on Wednesday as scheduled.

``I feel great,″ she piped in.

Otherwise, Raymond could go with Lori Harrigan, who no-hit Cuba in the U.S. opener, or Lisa Fernandez, who would also pitch the next day against rival Australia.

It’s not uncommon for softball pitchers to throw several days in a row. Christa Williams earned the save in the Americans’ victory over Cuba a day before starting against Japan; Gina Weber has started all three of New Zealand’s games so far.

In other softball action at the Blacktown Olympic Center, Italy beat Cuba 1-0. New Zealand played China and Australia played Canada in the late games.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, a softball player in a Cleveland ``pigtail league″ as a child, threw out the first pitch before the American game against Japan.

And pitching was the story during the game, as well, as both teams were scoreless through 10 innings.

Williams, who has a 74 mph fastball that makes her the fastest pitcher on the U.S. staff, gave up a single to the first batter of the game and then retired the next 13.

She struck out 10 in all, allowing five hits _ three of them to start the sixth before Smith came on in relief.

Fernandez also took the previous loss back in 1998. Although she broke into tears when asked about her 0-for-13 batting slump, she was more confident when talking about the rest of the tournament.

``We’re ready for them tomorrow. We want nothing more than to get back on that field,″ she said. ``I’d be worried if I was the rest of the teams.″

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