A berth in the 2020 Olympics and a world title are up for grabs for USA Softball this weekend
It was more stressful than any of the games that preceded it, but the United States remained unbeaten in the WBSC World Championship with a 3-1 win over Australia on Friday, the first game of the medal round for the defending champion.
While this was its closest call thus far, the United States is 8-0 in the tournament in Chiba, Japan. In fact, the Americans have won 17 consecutive WBSC games since losing to Japan in the gold-medal game in 2014.
With softball's biggest tournament -- that label is still applicable for now -- entering its final weekend, here's a look at where things stand for Team USA in the big and small pictures.
How close is the U.S. to defending its title?
Figuring out the complex bracket for the world championship is more challenging than most Sunday crossword puzzles -- and that's before adding in the international dateline to determine what time to wake up and watch the action in this country.
The United States and Japan each won their opening games of the medal round, which is most easily pictured as a double-elimination format (even though that's oversimplifying it).
That means the longstanding rivals play Saturday evening in Chiba (early Saturday morning in this country) in what amounts to a semifinal. The winner of that games advances directly to the gold-medal game the next day and will be one win from a championship.
But the loser of that game isn't out. Instead, it will play a team yet to be determined Sunday afternoon in the bronze-medal game. The winner of that second-chance game claims the other place in the gold-medal game that evening, while the loser gets the bronze medal. Got all that?
The important part is that this is where we've been in six previous world championships this century, with Japan and the United States meeting for a direct path to the gold-medal game. The teams then met again in the gold-medal game on all six occasions. The U.S. won titles in 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2016, and Japan won in 2012 and 2014.
Both the American title in 2006 and Japanese title in 2012 came after that team lost the first encounter and reached the final through the second-chance portion of the bracket.
What does that mean for the 2020 Olympics?
The United States is close to becoming the first country to qualify on the field for Tokyo 2020, when softball returns to the Olympic program for the first time since 2008. While a world title is a big deal for anyone involved, qualification for 2020 is the bigger story in the long run.
The team that wins the world championship earns a place in the Olympics, while almost everyone else waits for qualifying events next year. The catch is that Japan already qualified by virtue of hosting the Olympics, so any team that loses to Japan in the gold-medal game will still qualify for the six-team Olympic field.
Qualifying right now is big for peace of mind and team building, but it also has more pragmatic benefits in turning on the spigots for funding from the United States Olympic Committee.
All of that means that the most important game for American fans in many ways becomes the bronze-medal game. If the United States loses that first meeting with Japan on Saturday, it can still clinch a place in the Olympics by winning the bronze-medal game (knowing that Japan would be its opponent in the gold-medal game).
If the United States beats Japan on Saturday, it will clinch a place in the Olympics if Japan wins the bronze-medal game (for the same reason).
In short, the only way for the gold-medal game to determine an Olympic bid is if Japan isn't in it.
Who has the MVP been so far?
Exactly who we all thought it would be. Former Olympian and world champion Monica Abbott has been sensational in her return to international competition after after eight years away focusing on professional environments, and breaking financial barriers, in the United States and Japan.
Departing from its blueprint for most of the past eight years, and indeed even before that during the first Olympic era, the U.S. isn't trying to obscure the reality that it has an ace. Abbott isn't first among equals -- she's without peer. So while Team USA also has a tremendous supporting cast of pitchers ready when needed, Abbott worked nearly as many innings in pool play as the rest of the staff combined. The U.S. get cute when the medal round began either. It gave the ball to Abbott against Australia. All she did was strike out 18 batters -- she even made the final out herself on an over-the-shoulder catch when she didn't get the strikeout.
It's telling that the moments that prove Abbott isn't invulnerable only reinforce why she's unbeatable. Both runs she's allowed so far in the tournament came on home runs, but they were solo home runs that the U.S. quickly erased. They are almost always solo home runs, as Abbott has allowed just four other hits and four walks in 20 innings. She also has 49 strikeouts in those innings.
You might get one good swing against her, but you aren't likely to get more than one run.
Has there been a breakout player?
There is a lot of softball yet to be played, but this may go down as the tournament that helped Aubree Munro cement her place behind the plate in any Olympic run.
The United States has gradually locked in an everyday lineup over the past few years. It's safe to assume Valerie Arioto will be at first base most games. Delaney Spaulding and Ali Aguilar will be in the middle of the infield, Haylie McCleney will be in center field and Michelle Moultrie will be somewhere. But catcher has been among the unpredictable positions on the lineup card.
The U.S. currently has three players with extensive catching experience: Taylor Edwards, Sahvanna Jaquish and Munro. While all are good behind the plate, Munro is the one most known for her defensive skills. She was arguably the best defensive catcher of the past decade in college softball during her career at Florida. She's agile in blocking, works well with pitchers and opponents get about as far running on her as they do running on a treadmill.
But is a defense-first catcher who hasn't spent much time at other positions a luxury the U.S. can afford on a 15-player Olympic roster, when versatility and balanced skills are paramount?
Munro is trying to make that question moot. In addition to the expected stellar defense and the chemistry she appears to be developing as essentially Abbott's full-time catcher, Munro hit two home runs in pool play and is currently tied for third on the team in total bases.
U.S. coach Ken Eriksen said he wants three players capable of catching on any roster, so this is far from settled. Indeed, in showing her versatility at third base and a powerful bat, Jaquish is also in the midst of a strong tournament. Not part of this team but a frequent presence for the U.S. over the past six years, Amanda Chidester will be heard from again. But if Munro continues like this, the Americans will have their answer.
What about the rest of the field?
Fans of college softball have plenty of reasons to pay attention to the rest of the bracket.
Australia's Kaia Parnaby, who helped Hawaii make a memorable surprise run to the Women's College World Series in 2010, held the U.S. in check for much of the medal-round opener and deserved a better fate than the loss. With five starts already and a 1.02 ERA, 33 strikeouts and just three walks, she is doing for Australia what Abbott does for the United States.
The same could be said of Dallas Escobedo. The pitcher who won an NCAA championship as a freshman at Arizona State in 2011 is now the ace of a much-improved Mexican team. She, too, pitched well against the U.S., earning a no-decision in a pool-play loss. And as good as Abbott has been, it's Escobedo who leads the tournament with 55 strikeouts.
Danielle Lawrie's comeback from retirement is a boon for Canada. While asked to carry less of the load than Abbott, Escobedo or Parnaby because of the presence of former Syracuse standout Jenna Caira, Lawrie is 3-0 with 27 strikeouts and one run allowed through 20 innings.
Puerto Rico is the other team still playing and the team with the greatest NCAA presence other than the United States. Fresh off a college title with Florida State, where she will return after the tournament, Carsyn Gordon hit three home runs in pool play. But the two-way star of the event has been former Florida standout Aleshia Ocasio.
Should the U.S. qualify for the Olympics this weekend, Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico will be left with a fascinating battle for two remaining Olympic berths from the region.