USA Softball made a statement in 2018, but pitching tops list of pending questions

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The U.S. softball team checked off the No. 1 item on its to-do list when it clinched a spot in the 2020 Olympics.

The year that matters most for softball is 2020, when the sport returns to the Olympics in Tokyo and the U.S. women's national team can finally get a chance to heal wounds that have festered for a decade.

But a lot could have gone wrong in 2018 to make that redemption considerably more difficult.

Instead, a lot went right. Just about everything that could, in fact.

Team USA will close its competitive schedule for the year in this week's Japan Cup in Takasaki City. A regular event on the softball calendar, the tournament this year includes Australia and Chinese Taipei, in addition to the United States and host Japan. The teams will play a round-robin format in the opening round that begins Friday (Thursday evening, for those following along in this country), and the teams with the two best records advance to the final on Sunday.

While capable of providing memorable moments of its own, such as Japan's walk-off win in the final against the U.S. a year ago, this year's event is as much an afterword to the story of 2018 and an introduction to the months ahead. Entering the Japan Cup with a 21-1-1 record in all competition this year, and a 16-0 record in international games, the U.S. has already retained its world title, qualified for the Olympics and started to piece together a team capable of 2020 gold.

So as the final games begin, it seems a good time to take stock of what 2018 revealed.

Team USA is again the team to beat

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USA Softball established itself as the team to beat by winning a world title on Japanese soil.

The U.S. actually reclaimed the "team-to-beat" label after losing to Japan in the gold-medal game of the 2008 Olympics, the last before the sport's Olympic exile. An American team with a similar core beat Japan two years later to win the 2010 world championship.

But for several years thereafter, with that core gone, it was difficult to make the case that the U.S. ruled the international game. Japan won world titles in 2012 and 2014, with a junior world title sandwiched in the middle in 2013. Much of the sports world missed Japan's run because the events unfolded away from the Olympic stage. The American interests, meanwhile, were splintered by a lack of cooperation between the national program and the pro league, and the U.S. ceded supremacy in that span to a far greater degree than in that 2008 upset.

Narrow as the margin was this summer in the world championships -- Rachel Garcia's walk-off hit beat Japan in a semifinal and Kelsey Stewart did the same against Japan in extra innings in the final -- the American gold medal solidified the change in fortunes in recent years.

The U.S. has won the last two world titles (2016 and 2018) and back-to-back junior world titles. Entering this week's competition, the U.S. is 3-0 against Japan this year, even beating 2008 Olympic hero Yukiko Ueno in the epic world championship finale.

A secondary U.S. team lost all three games it played against Japan in a June series and then lost again on home soil in the International Cup. And the U.S. could well lose one or more games against its rival in the Japan Cup -- its edge is slight. But the edge does again belong to the Americans, who spent much of 2018 proving it.

The U.S. pitching competition is about to get cutthroat

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Rachel Garcia and Kelly Barnhill have compelling cases to make the U.S. roster for the 2020 Olympics.

The U.S. built its place atop the sport on a lot of building blocks. It built a new core around players like Valerie Arioto and Michelle Moultrie during the lean years. It invested early, to obvious benefit, in players like Ali Aguilar, Haylie McCleney and Delaney Spaulding. But no single factor played a bigger role in reclaiming a place atop the sport than Monica Abbott's return to the national team after eight years away.

Abbott can't do it all on her own, but there sure are a lot of days when it looks like she can. Her long history with Japan, after so many years playing professionally in that country, makes those meetings fascinating mental and physical duels. With the possible exception of Ueno, there wasn't another player working in Abbott's same pitching zip code. In all competitions for Team USA, Abbott is 10-0 with a 0.98 ERA and 118 strikeouts in 57 1/3 innings.

So that's one spot claimed in an Olympic pitching rotation that may only go three deep. Now the question is what happens if Cat Osterman, who recently came out of retirement, claims a spot?

When last we saw her in 2015, Osterman was there with Abbott in an Aaron Rodgers vs. Tom Brady-like battle for bragging rights. At perhaps even 75 percent of that, Osterman, who will make her return in December's selection camp, would be the second best pitcher available.

Ally Carda, Carley Hoover, Jessica Moore, Danielle O'Toole and Keilani Ricketts are all on the roster for the Japan Cup, with current collegians Kelly Barnhill and Garcia left to their studies after helping win the world championship over the summer. Ricketts pitched the second-most innings in international competition this summer and had a 1.98 ERA in her own return to the national team after several years away. Particularly when it comes to Ricketts, Barnhill and Garcia, it's difficult to imagine who gets left behind in 2020.

Team USA found its catcher

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Aubree Munro added offense to her storied defense and cemented her spot as the top U.S. catcher.

By allowing a bigger roster than in either the world championships or Olympics, the Japan Cup will give players who excelled this summer for the secondary U.S. team an opportunity to make a final impression in 2018. Outfielder and former Olympian Kelly Kretschman and ever-versatile Hannah Flippen and Amanda Chidester are among the most intriguing. The composition of the 2020 roster is not a settled matter. But with catcher the best example, 2018 enhanced many resumes.

Aubree Munro entered 2018 with a reputation as the best defensive catcher in softball, a high-energy presence behind the plate and a one-woman stop sign for opponents thinking of stealing a base or even leaving a bunt too close to home plate when attempting to advance a runner. She is still all of those things. But in developing a rapport with Abbott and making valuable contributions with her bat, she made it more and more difficult to imagine anyone else behind the plate.

Before Stewart's 10th-inning walk-off hit to win the world title, it was Munro who came through in that inning with a two-out double off Ueno that tied the gold-medal game. And it was Munro's home run that started the U.S. rally after the team fell behind 3-0 in the semifinal against Japan.

No one did more this year to reshape the depth chart than Munro.

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