Yukiko Ueno got exactly what she wanted for her birthday on Sunday: a gold medal.
Japan’s star pitcher rung in her 30th birthday by leading her team to its first gold medal in 42 years at the ISF XIII Women’s World Fastpitch Championship at Whitehorse’s Pepsi Softball Centre.
Japan, who won silver at the previous three worlds, captured gold in a grueling 2-1, 10-inning battle against Team U.S.A.
“This will never happen on my birthday (again), I feel great,” said Ueno, through an interpreter. “I felt (the Americans’) enthusiasm and their fighting spirit, so I knew I had to really work hard.”
“We did very, very well,” said Japan’s head coach Reika Utsugi, also through an interpreter. “It’s been 42 years since we’ve won the world championship. I’m so happy, I’m so excited because after 42 years Japan finally won the world championship.”
The win over the U.S.A. ends a gold-winning streak of momentous proportions. The U.S.A. has won gold at the last seven Women’s World Fastpitch Championships, dating back to 1982. They’ve won nine in total.
The American team went undefeated en route to the final, winning its first six games without allowing a single run. Only six runs were scored against the U.S.A. in the entire championship.
“You can’t ask for much more in a championship setting,” said U.S.A. head coach Ken Erikson. “Get down to 10 innings – three extra frames – in a world championship gold medal game, some phenomenal defensive play and great pitching, clutch stuff. So it was everything the fans were paying for, I can tell you that.”
Ueno was easily the star of the game. She pitched all 10 innings, throwing 134 pitches, amassing eight strikeouts and allowing just three hits. That’s just a few hours after pitching seven innings earlier in the day in a 2-0 win over Australia to reach the final. The loss to Japan on Sunday gave the Aussies the bronze.
Ueno, who is considered to be the best women’s softball pitcher in the world, is the first ever to throw a perfect game at the Olympics in 2004 and has had pitches clocked at 121 kilometres an hour. She was on Japan’s gold medal-winning team at the 2008 Olympic Games.
“I’m very tired, to be honest,” said Ueno, with her gold medal around her neck and a large icepack on her arm. “There was so much pressure – physically and psychologically. But I feel really great that I was able to play well under that kind of pressure.”
Japan’s winning run came at the top of the 10th inning. Infielder Misa Okubo brought home Haruna Sakamoto from third on a sacrifice bunt in a risky squeeze play.
The U.S.A. pulled their bacon from the fire twice in the extra innings.
In the top of the eighth, centre fielder Michelle Moultrie caught a hit from Eri Yamada as it was sailing over the fence in what would have been a two-run shot.
Down 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth inning, with two out and a full count, Lauren Gibson drove to left field to bring in Christie Orgeron to tie the game.
“When it gets down to extra innings like that, it’s a game of inches,” said Erikson. “On any given day I can’t tell you who’s going to win. I’d flip a coin every single day. It’s two good teams matching up, two good pitching performances, two great defensive efforts. So today they got us. They were the better team.”
The final was a real pitchers’ battle with eight scoreless innings before a runner reached home plate.
“It was a tough battle. Japan is always a tough win for us,” said U.S.A. pitcher Keilani Ricketts. “We battled them through all 10 innings, gave it 100 per cent, but just came up short.”
Ricketts, who finished with 10 strikeouts, pitched the first nine innings. She was pulled in the 10th for Jackie Traina. Traina’s first pitch resulted in the winning run coming in. Traina was then pulled for Chelsea Thomas, who pitched to one batter before Ricketts was put back in the game.
Taking Ricketts out to rest her arm, with the intention of putting her back in, wasn’t the plan, she said.
“The intention was a right-right match up,” said Ricketts. “Jackie (Traina) has been dominant on the right side, so we went with her.”
Team U.S.A. beat Japan 3-1 the previous day, but downing the Americans when all the chips are on the table is nothing new for Japan.
Japan defeated the U.S.A. for gold at the Canadian Open at the start of the month. They won gold over the U.S.A. at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, thwarting the Americans’ attempt to win a fourth straight Games. (Softball has since been removed from the Olympic program and will not be included in this summer’s Games or in 2016.)
“It’s not a surprise,” said Utsugi. “We worked really hard and were really prepared for this. At the Canada Cup, we won as well.
“Yesterday’s game wasn’t the final, so we were somewhat relaxed,” she added. “The communication wasn’t the best.
“All the players were playing on different teams in Japan and for the Canada Cup and this championship they got together and played as a team.”
The bronze-winning Aussies advanced into Sunday’s game against Japan with a 3-1 win over Canada on Saturday. The loss put Canada in fourth out of the 16 teams at the championship.
See full coverage of Team Canada’s finish in Wednesday’s Yukon News.
Contact Tom Patrick at email@example.com