Valerie Arioto hits three home runs to propel U.S. past rival Japan for International Cup title
IRVINE, Calif. -- Like the Wimbledon match and World Cup game contested earlier in the day, Sunday's softball game between the United States and Japan pitted pedigreed international rivals in a championship setting.
The difference was this final offered none of the same finality. Only another classic in the sport's best rivalry.
For Novak Djokovic after Wimbledon and France after the World Cup, the work is done and the celebration is underway. Even after USA Red beat Japan 10-5 to win the International Cup with a barrage of home runs, any real payoff is still at least a month away. And the real prize is still two years in the distance.
But winning always beats the alternative. All the more when it comes with a trophy.
All the more when a team picks up the best player in the world instead of the other way around.
USA Red, one of two American entries, led almost from the outset Sunday. Michelle Moultrie's infield single in the bottom of the first inning brought home two runs, with help from Japan's second and final error of the tournament. Three solo home runs over the next three innings put the lead at 5-3. It was then, with a runner on base and one out in the top of the fifth inning, that USA Red called on its fourth pitcher of the day: Monica Abbott.
Abbott's return to full international competition after eight years concentrating on a pro career was nothing short of sensational throughout the week in Irvine. She was the star of the show, totaling 17 shutout innings in pool play. But Japan's Saki Yamazaki, Abbott's friend and longtime teammate much of the year on the Toyota entry in Japan's professional league, drove a two-strike pitch over the fence in center field for a home run that tied the game 5-5.
Abbott rallied to close out the inning. In the dugout before the next half inning the only former Olympian on the roster told her teammates to get her one run and she wouldn't let them down again.
So instead of the world's best pitcher, USA's best slugger of this decade took over.
Valerie Arioto led off the bottom of the fifth inning with her second home run of the day. She then added a three-run home run to close the scoring in the bottom of the sixth. Japan allowed one home run and four runs in its first six games. Arioto hit three home runs and drove in five runs in six innings.
"We had a meeting before the game and something Coach [Ken Eriksen] said really resonated," Arioto said. "Japan is too good to pick a spot, to only think inside or only think outside. They're going to spread the zone and throw you everything in one at-bat. Keep an open focus and once it's in the zone, that's the one to be aggressive on. They're going to throw strikes."
The 13-team invitational tournament that concluded Sunday was the opening act of a summer that is itself the opening act for softball's Olympic return in 2020. One of two teams in this event representing the country, USA Red is the team that will travel to Chiba, Japan, next month for the WBSC World Championship. The Americans won that title two years ago in the Netherlands after Japan won the previous two events of what became the sport's biggest prize when softball was dropped from the Olympics after 2008. But with softball back on the program for the 2020 Olympics, this year's world championship offers the first chance to qualify for 2020.
While Sunday's championship game was standalone entertainment, another entry in the long-running rivalry between countries that dominate the sport, the week offered plenty of insights into where that rivalry goes from here.
1. Monica Abbott changes everything
Eriksen, the USA Red coach, insisted before the tournament that Abbott gets treated like every other player on the team. There is no reason to think that isn't so when it comes to what takes place before and after games. But she isn't like anyone else. She is the world's best pitcher.
That Abbott wasn't in the pitching circle to start Sunday's final was all the evidence needed that the event was a point on the journey to the world championship, not a destination of its own. Eriksen said the plan was to get the ball to Abbott for the final inning or two, to let the rest of the pitching staff get experience against Japan. He didn't say it, but if there had been an Olympic berth on the line, it's safe to say the ball would have been in her hand.
In five games in pool play, Abbott pitched 17 of the team's 32 innings. She allowed four hits, one walk, no runs and struck out 38 batters.
She made sure the only close game, a 2-0 win against China, never felt uncomfortable thanks to a 16-strikeout shutout. A 5-0 win against Puerto Rico never had a chance to be close thanks to another 16-strikeout shutout.
"Obviously, she's relatively easy to play behind as an outfielder," Haylie McCleney deadpanned after Abbott recorded 16 of 21 outs by strikeout in one of those wins. "We're adjusting to some things. Obviously she throws hard, and as an outfielder you kind of have to move all over the place and play the odds because no one really squares her up. ... She's really fun to play behind. I would rather play behind her than against her."
You remember when Arioto said the message to USA Red hitters was that Japan's pitching was too good to pick a spot? Abbott is so good hitters have to pick both a particular spot and pitch and hope they get lucky. Now a USA teammate, Sahvanna Jaquish did that as a rookie in National Pro Fastpitch and managed to hit a home run. The rest of her at-bats didn't go so well. As she recalled, Abbott struck her out every time thereafter for the rest of the season.
"Other pitchers, you can pick sides of the pate if you want," Jaquish said. "You can pick speeds if you want -- if they're throwing a changeup a lot, you can sit on that speed. But you have to pick a pitch, one pitch, with the best of the world. If she doesn't give it to you, if she pitches you three other pitches and strikes you out, you just tip your cap."
There is no one else like her at the moment. So forget about the home run Sunday. Or actually, don't forget about it. Even that moment of vulnerability told its own story of Abbott's value. The rest of the American staff that will go to the world championship has little experience in that setting. Abbott gave up the hit, came in the dugout and took ownership of it and then silenced Japan the rest of the way.
2. The U.S. didn't waste the past eight years
USA Red had runners on first and third base when Arioto came to the plate for the last of her home runs. Eriksen said he felt like the Japanese kept looking at him, waiting to see if he would let speedy Kirsti Merritt steal second base and free them up to walk Arioto. With some hitters, he said, he might have sent the runner to try to get two runners in scoring position.
But he wasn't going to risk taking the bat out of Arioto's hands.
"You talk about Miss Red, White and Blue, holy smokes," Eriksen said. "When you take a look at her, however you want to define a [high pressure] situation -- fifth inning on -- that kid right there is the one you want at the plate every single time. More than I wanted her at the plate every single time, I think Japan didn't want her at the plate every time."
Arioto and Moultrie, who added her own home run to the American binge, are the two longest-serving players on the roster. Both were part of the 2011 Pan-Am team, the group that started the new post-Olympic era after the previous generation won the 2010 world title, atoning for the Olympic heartbreak in 2008, and moved on to the professional league or retirement.
Players have come and gone, some beaten out on skill and others simply unable to put off real life for a commitment that doesn't pay any bills. But gradually, from the middle infield of Ali Aguilar and Delaney Spaulding to center fielder Haylie McCleney and catcher Aubree Munro, the core has grown. And even before Abbott returned, that core won a world title in 2016, bringing the title back to the United States for the first time in their era.
"I feel passionate about the core because we've been together so long, especially for a time when not everyone wanted to be a part of it," Arioto said. "So I take that really seriously. This team is really special because we do have that old core, we have old Olympians, we have new players that have done such a great job of fitting in and making everyone better at the same time."
USA Softball wasn't just treading water in the post-Olympic wasteland. It was building a core.
3. The Olympic roster is still wide open
An International Cup title doesn't mean this group is locked in for 2020. Eriksen said there would be no additions before the world championship, barring injury, but there is no such certainty beyond this summer.
Some players on USA Blue, the other American team in action in this tournament, made it a point through their performance to make sure any Olympic roster remains unsettled.
Because as many home runs as Arioto hit Sunday, she wasn't going to catch USA Blue's Hannah Flippen for the tournament's most outstanding offensive performance. Entering the third-place game that took place after the final, Flippen was 12-for-19 with 19 RBIs in six games. Her output included five home runs, three doubles and a triple. She was nearly unstoppable. A versatile defender who can play anywhere in the infield and was a part of Team USA a summer ago, she didn't look like someone who has played her final game for the main team.
"She doesn't fear any situation whatsoever," USA Blue coach Patty Gasso said. "She knows the game. She's a coach on the field, so she feels responsible for our team and the way we play. She talks the talk and she walks it. She's just a very complete athlete."
Flippen's mom, Mary Kate, was a member of the national team before there was an opportunity to play in the Olympics. Like USA Blue teammates Kelly Kretschman, Amanda Chidester and a handful of others, Flippen spent the tournament auditioning for her own Olympic opportunity.