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History on the line for Mulipola and Team USA softball

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Megan Ewing | The Daily Wildcat

Dejah Mulipola prepares to bat for Arizona softball and took on NMSU on Friday, April 9 in Tucson, Ariz., winning 11-5.

For the first time in 13 years, Team USA softball will play for the gold medal at the Olympics. 

Team USA won gold in 1996, 2000 and 2004. In 2005, the International Olympic Committee voted to remove baseball and softball from the Olympic games. Former IOC president Jacques Rogge determined that softball must be removed because it was unfair how good America was against the rest of the world. Former American pitcher Lisa Fernandez felt the decision was one-sided and unfair. 

"Rogge has basically conspired against the sports to get them removed," Fernandez told ESPN. "We had done our job as a sport worldwide to show we belong. I feel one person, the president of the IOC, a person from Europe, has taken it upon himself to ruin the lives of millions, actually billions of women."

Former American infielder Dot Richardson insinuated the decision was based on those who were upset they were not as good as the USA. 

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"[This] was ripped away from the 126 countries that play the sport of softball, that just vanished," Richardson told ESPN. "I've always seen in athletics an anti-American sentiment throughout the world. Most of it is through jealousy or envy. I just don't know if this had anything to do with that."

Even former Wildcat Jennie Finch, a member of the last U.S. Olympic team in 2008, was sad for those who saw themselves competing at the Olympics to see their dream taken from them.

"It's devastating and heartbreaking, all combined," Finch told ESPN. “Especially because the sport's at an all-time high right now. I know it's devastating for the young girls. We're going to do all we can to get the sport back for 2016."

While Finch and Team USA lobbied for softball to return, they did not win that fight for 2012 or 2016. Due to the game’s popularity in the host nation Japan, the IOC reinstated softball for these games, but these games only. France hosts the Olympics in 2024, and they did not propose that softball be in their Olympic games, which only adds fuel to the fire that Richardson was discussing about the jealousy of American dominance in the sport. 

Nevertheless, Team USA is in the gold medal game at these Olympic games. USA will face Japan, which they last faced at the 2008 Olympic games and lost to in the gold medal game. USA will have the home-field advantage after finishing pool play 5-0, including a 2-1 defeat of Japan on Sunday, July 25. 

Here are some key notes about each team that may determine who leaves Tokyo as the best softball team in the world. 

RELATED: Koutsoyanopulos and Team Italy fall to O’Toole, McQuillin and Team Mexico at Olympic Games

Pitching is everything

This game will come down to who’s pitcher makes the fewest mistakes, and, so far, both USA and Japan’s pitchers have not shown many weaknesses. 

USA’s ace Catherine Osterman has dominated these Olympic games. Osterman has appeared in three games and boasts a record of 2-0 along with 12.2 innings pitched, 15 strikeouts, two hits and zero runs allowed. USA’s second option Monica Abbott has been just as solid. Abbott has pitched in all five USA games, compiling a record of 3-0 with 29 strikeouts, four hits, one run and two saves. No matter who head coach Ken Eriksen sends into the circle, Japan will have their hands full with USA’s starting pitcher. 

It is hard to say who Japan will send into the circle against USA. One option is pitcher Yukiko Ueno. In her three appearances, Ueno is 1-0 with 16.1 innings pitched, 11 hits, three runs and 21 strikeouts. Japan could also send Miu Goto into the circle. In her three appearances, Goto is 3-0 with 9.0 innings, two hits, zero runs and 20 strikeouts. 

Haylie McCleney is on fire

Of all the hitters on every team, center fielder Haylie McCleney has been the best out of all of them. Going into their pool play game against Japan, McCleney was batting .727 with three runs, four walks and an OBP of .800. McCleney bats in the leadoff spot, so USA will have plenty of opportunities to score. 

McCleney graduated from the University of Alabama in 2016, where she was named a first-team All-American and First Team All-SEC three times. McCleney is also a two-time World Cup gold medalist (2014-15) and two-time Pan American Games gold medalist (2017, 2019). 

Japan’s hitters have been struggling on offense. In their game against USA, their highest batting average was .417, belonging to third baseman Yamamoto Yu. Japan also started four players batting below .300 and three players batting .000.   

Extra softball? No problem

Both USA and Japan have been tested early on with games going into extra innings. Japan has played in two extra innings games. Their first extra-innings game was against Mexico, which was a surprise to many. In Olympic play, a baserunner is put on second to start the inning to speed the game up. Mexico was the visiting team, so they went first but were unable to score. Japan came up in the bottom of the inning and scored to escape that game 3-2. 

Japan went into extras two games later against Canada. Neither team scored a run in seven innings, and with Japan being the home team again Canada had the first shot at going ahead. Japan was lucky again with Canada not scoring and winning the game 1-0 in the bottom of the inning. 

USA’s lone extra innings game was against Australia. Both Abbott and Australian pitcher Tarni Stepto threw gems so good that neither team scored in regulation. Australia struck first in the top of the eighth to take a 1-0 lead. With the home-field advantage on the line, USA was able to get runners in scoring position for third baseman Amanda Chidester. It only took one pitch for Chidester to knock the runners in to win the game for USA 2-0. 

Runs have not been plentiful

When you face the best teams in the world, you will face the best pitchers in the world. Therefore, many of the games played have been low-scoring affairs. Japan scored eight runs in their first game but never scored more than five after that. USA has not scored more than two runs in any of their games. In total, USA has only scored nine runs across five games, which is only one less than Japan’s highest total. 

Both offenses will have to dig deep and score early on because this tournament has favored those who score first. 

USA will face Japan in the gold medal game at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium on Tuesday, July 27 at 4 a.m. MST on NBCSN. 


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