Shut out of Rio, USA Softball wins world title and gets its hopes up for Tokyo
One softball drought is over for the United States.
And a little over a week before the Olympics begin without softball but with an IOC vote that could change that four years from now in Tokyo, perhaps seeds have taken root for a bigger celebration to come.
The United States defeated Japan 7-3 on Sunday in Surrey, British Columbia, in the winner-take-all final game of the World Baseball Softball Confederation World Championship, currently the sport's most important international tournament.
Team USA beat Japan, its main rival, twice in the event and finished with a 9-0 record.
Japan was the two-time defending world champion, beating the United States in 2012 in Canada's Yukon Territory and 2014 in the Netherlands. Counting the Olympic gold it won in 2008, the last Olympics in which softball was contested, Japan arrived in British Columbia having won three of the past four major titles in a sport previously dominated by the United States.
It tells the story of the international game's past and present that while this was the 10th world championship for the United States, it was the first championship for every player on the American roster.
Not only was Team USA winless in the final game of a major tournament since 2010, but it also entered Sunday having played 17 consecutive innings in such games without so much as a lead.
It didn't take long to bring that streak to an end.
After the first two U.S. batters were retired in the top of the first inning, Jazmyn Jackson doubled to right center and Valerie Arioto drew a full-count two-out walk, the ninth of the tournament for one of the sport's most disciplined power hitters. Among the leading home run hitters in college softball this past season at the University of Washington, international rookie Ali Aguilar then kept her swing short enough to go the other way with an outside pitch for a single that scored Jackson.
The hit was just the third of the tournament for Aguilar, who was in the lineup primarily because Amanda Chidester, who led Team USA with eight home runs and 17 RBIs, was out with an arm injury sustained a day earlier in a 4-3 semifinal win over Japan (which then beat Canada in the losers bracket Sunday afternoon to earn a rematch in the final).
Japan soon paid an even steeper price for its inability to close out Sunday's first inning when Michelle Moultrie waited on an off-speed pitch and pulled it for a three-run home run and a 4-0 lead.
Unlike 2012, when American hitters couldn't come up with a run in support of Keilani Ricketts, or two years later, when it was Japan that rode a big first inning to victory, momentum belonged to the United States.
Japan had a chance to cut the deficit to two runs in the bottom of the second, but Team USA center fielder Haylie McCleney's throw and catcher Aubree Munro's positioning got Japan's Yuka Ichiguchi at the plate for the final out of the inning.
McCleney subsequently put the game away with a three-run home run in the fourth inning.
A day after she came within an out of a complete game in the semifinal, Ally Carda started again in the final, but four American pitchers split the workload almost equally.
To the degree it is possible from a two-game sample size, the title validates the vision of Team USA coach Ken Eriksen. Now in his sixth year as coach of the national team, much of that time working essentially pro bono in addition to a paying job as head coach at the University of South Florida, Eriksen sought to build a program (largely from scratch) that offered opportunities to college-age talent and still developed a veteran core for an uncertain Olympic future.
Consider how the opening runs were scored Sunday. Jackson, who also scored the first run when the United States beat Japan to win a junior world title a year ago, still has two seasons of eligibility at the University of California. Aguilar has another season at Washington. But Arioto and Moultrie have a combined 12 summers of international experience between them.
Put another way, when Arioto played her freshman season at Cal, Jackson was in sixth grade.
Look ahead to 2020 and the United States could well have a handful of key veterans in their early 30s and the rest of the roster spread throughout their 20s. Exactly what you would expect of an Olympic roster -- but what seemed like anything but a given a few years ago, when a lack of funding and attention made a revolving door seem more likely.
There are, of course, dangers in drawing too many conclusions from the wins, just as from the narrow losses in the past two world championships. The U.S. and Japan have split six games this year. Sunday's score notwithstanding, their games are almost always close. And Japan's roster this time around didn't include pitching ace Yukiko Ueno, who won another domestic pro title last year but, at 35 years old, may finally be ready to stop haunting American dreams.
Perhaps it would be wisest to make of the wins in Surrey only that they earned Team USA this title. That should be enough. Jackson's 12 hits, Chidester's power, Aguilar's fearlessness and Jessica Moore's four wins and 23 strikeouts worth commending solely for what they produced over a week near Vancouver.
And yet the celebration after the final out appeared surprisingly muted, handshakes and high fives instead of bear hugs and dog piles. Perhaps it was the product of a game that lacked the drama familiar to the rivalry. Perhaps youth made the accomplishment difficult to grasp in the moment.
Perhaps the players let loose later.
Or perhaps to them, this was just the first step toward a bigger party in 2020.
They did their part to put the United States back on top. Now they will wait and watch the vote from Rio.