On Friday, the U.S. softball team faced the toughest day of its gilded Olympic history: a doubleheader starting with undefeated Japan and followed by the resumption of a game against Canada that was delayed by rain with the U.S. trailing 1-0 in the top of the fourth inning. Back to back losses? It wasn't impossible.
But softball's version of Murderer's Row started things off with an aluminum bang. Shortstop Natasha Watley cranked the second pitch of the opening game, a 57- mph fastball, down the right field line and over the 220-foot sign and a fan's American flag. Centerfielder Caitlin Lowe followed with a double to right-center. That brought up leftfielder Jessica Mendoza, who is "never satisfied no matter what she achieves," according to the fast-talking and ebullient game announcer. Mendoza then smashed a towering homer to center. It was her first of two on the day, and together with dingers from Watley and designated hitter Crystl Bustos, the U.S. broke the Olympic record with four home runs.
The U.S. battered Japan's starting pitcher, Naho Emoto, out of the game before she could record an out, and ultimately cruised to a 7-0 victory over SI's pick for the silver medal.
After giving up a single to the first batter of the game -- the first hit allowed by the U.S. at these Games -- pitcher Monica Abbott, a former University of Tennessee star, didn't give up another. She overpowered the Japanese hitters with 66-mph fastballs and riseballs, which take about the same time to reach the batter from the 43-foot mound-to-home distance as a 93-mph heater does in the majors.
Abbott bounced back from the previous day, when she was called for three illegal pitches, including one that advanced the lone Canadian runner who scored before the rain postponement. Abbott was penalized for not having her left push-off foot over the rubber when she began her delivery.
"I was pretty upset about that yesterday," she said, after notching her first Olympic win against Japan. "I made some adjustments."
The delayed U.S. versus Canada game was six outs from being official. Abbott had started it before the rain arrived, and did not allow a hit. (The run scored courtesy of an error and two illegal pitches).
Prior to the Olympics, several women on the U.S. team noted that the world was catching up to them, and multiple team members pointed to Canada as a squad that could surprise people.
With their 17-game Olympic win streak on the line, the U.S. team's bats came alive and coupled with poor defense by Canada. Three errors produced a four-run sixth inning and pitcher Cat Osterman allowed just one hit in the 8-1 victory.
Mendoza, with two homers and four runs -- including the go-ahead against Canada -- was cautiously satisfied (Cue Mrs. Announcer) with what she'd achieved. "I'm just happy to get two wins against the two best teams [other than the U.S.] in the world," she said.