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Gimino: Silver may help U.S. in long run

UA-linked softball team loses 3-1 in final to Japan

Dejected members of the U.S. softball team wait to congratulate the gold-medal-winning team from Japan.

Dejected members of the U.S. softball team wait to congratulate the gold-medal-winning team from Japan.

The perception is that the United States’ Olympic softball team had to lose to win.

Small consolation right now.

Japan pulled off one of the stunners of the Beijing Olympics, beating Team USA 3-1 in the gold medal game early Thursday morning Tucson time while many here were still sleeping.

There will be no gold medals for former Arizona Wildcats Jennie Finch, Lovieanne Jung and Caitlin Lowe.

There will be no gold medal for Salpointe Catholic High School graduate Tairia Flowers.

There won’t be a second Olympic championship for Arizona coach Mike Candrea.

There will just be silver and lots of U.S. tears in the sport’s final appearance in the games for at least eight years. Partly because the Americans had been so dominant – winning all three previous Olympic gold medals – officials voted to drop the sport in 2005.

The Americans outscored opponents 51-1 while winning it all in 2004 in Candrea’s first go-round as Olympics coach. They had outscored opponents 57-2 in this Olympics before running into Japan in the final.

It happens. That’s softball. The margin of error when the best plays the best – and that is clearly what Thursday morning’s game was – is the width of a blade of grass.

The U.S. team had defeated Japan twice before in these Olympics, but needed extra innings to pull out a 4-1 victory a day earlier to start the medal round. Here’s the deal: When Japan’s Yukiko Ueno pitches against the United States, all those U.S. advantages fly away. There is no dominance. It becomes a 50-50 game.

One game. Seven innings. A coin flip.

Ueno has four victories against Team USA in major international events in the past three years. Make that five victories.

She’s such a thorn that after she pitched Japan over the U.S. to win the 2005 World Cup in Oklahoma City, Candrea carried around video of her in his workbag. He would load up his laptop and scout her when he had free time from his UA duties.

She is Team USA’s cooler. The Equalizer.

And on Thursday, she was more than equal.

Japan scored twice off U.S. starting pitcher Cat Osterman, and then Ueno made it hold up. Crystl Bustos – the Albert Pujols of women’s softball – hit a home run in the bottom of the fifth to cut Japan’s lead to 2-1.

But Ueno, who had left the bases loaded in the first inning, did it again the sixth. Japan, with the help of two U.S. errors, pushed the lead to 3-1 in the top of the seventh.

Vicky Galindo led off the bottom of the seventh with a single, but Ueno needed only three pitches to get the next three outs, including a groundout by Lowe to end it all.

Teammates lifted Ueno on their shoulders . . . and that might be the last image we have of softball in the Olympics.

The sport was ousted from the 2012 Games in London, and one of the reasons usually given is that the vote was a backlash from the European-dominated International Olympic Committee against all the success of Team USA.

A ridiculous argument, but if it’s true, then a United States’ loss, sadly, is the best thing that could happen to the sport.

It’s a spot-on fact that some countries, especially those in Europe who don’t have deep roots in the game, can’t compete with the United States or Japan.

Yet.

Those countries just haven’t found their Ueno.

Softball isn’t the most democratic of sports, because one star pitcher can make all the difference.

Since the sport was voted out in 2005, the International Softball Federation has worked diligently to grow the sport, especially in Europe.

Candrea will do his part by giving coaching clinics in Italy and Great Britain next month.

You just hope that the members of the IOC were watching in the past couple of days. The medal round was full of thrilling games, including Japan’s 12-inning win over Australia to get to the gold medal game.

The IOC will vote next October to add two sports for the 2016 Games, which will be held at one of four locations – Chicago, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro or Madrid.

Softball is competing with baseball, karate, squash, roller derby, rugby and golf for inclusion in 2016.

Given Thursday’s result, the IOC has one less reason to keep softball off the program.

A U.S. loss just might have been the best way to get a rematch in eight years.

China's Megu Hirose slides safely into home after U.S. catcher Stacey Nuveman can't hold onto ball in the sixth inning of the gold medal softball game.

China's Megu Hirose slides safely into home after U.S. catcher Stacey Nuveman can't hold onto ball in the sixth inning of the gold medal softball game.

Japan pitcher Yukiko Ueno reacts after getting out of a bases-loaded jam in the sixth inning against the U.S.

Japan pitcher Yukiko Ueno reacts after getting out of a bases-loaded jam in the sixth inning against the U.S.

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