Young U.S. team loses to Japan

Things started to go south early for Team USA when Japan's Miso Okubo slid safely past Cheridan Hawkins in the first inning. AP Photo/Sarah Phipps

Aimee Creger's first start for the University of Tulsa came on Feb. 11, 2011, against Northern Illinois University. That was just about two and a half years after Japan's Yukiko Ueno, the pitcher Creger faced Saturday in the American's first start at the full international level, beat the United States in the gold medal game of the 2008 Olympics.

When Ueno pitched a perfect game for Japan in the 2004 Olympics, Cheridan Hawkins was getting ready for the fifth grade. Saturday, Hawkins came on in relief for the United States before Ueno even threw a pitch.

This was always going to be a learning experience.

So, yes, there was the not inconsequential matter of a place in the championship game of the World Cup of Softball available to Team USA when it took the field against Japan at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City. But there were also plenty of reminders that the game was also an introduction for a young American team, one that had as much to do with aspirations toward the final game of next summer's ISF World Championship in the Netherlands as any game that takes place Sunday night.

Both objectives remain works in progress after Japan beat the United States 7-4.

Of most immediate concern, the United States needs to beat winless Puerto Rico on Sunday afternoon in the final game of pool play to earn a place in the evening championship game against Japan. This is the eighth World Cup, an annual tournament held in Oklahoma City, and Team USA reached the final in all seven previous editions, winning the past six.

Extending that streak is absolutely within the capability of a team that is slugging a tournament-best .408 and scored four times against a pitcher as good as Ueno. It's also entirely possible Japan, with or without Ueno in the circle, would win a rematch. It is not an upset when Japan beats the United States. Japan's 9-6 win in the Canadian Open final last summer wasn't an upset. Nor was its 2-1 win in the World Championship final.

A rematch would matter. It matters to the players in the moment. It matters to anyone looking for some Sunday evening drama in a great rivalry. It just isn't the most important thing the United States (or Japan, for that matter) can take from the event.

Not long before the tournament, United States coach Ken Eriksen said that he hoped Japan used Ueno every game during its stay in Oklahoma City, including any and all against the United States. He was joking, but only in the sense that he knew Japan wouldn't overburden its ace. The wish was sincere, even if granting it lowered his team's odds of winning. The more Team USA is challenged now, the better it should be next summer.

"In the past I could come to you honestly and say, 'Hey we're going to be where we're at, we're comfortable with those types of things, I feel great about what's happening.'" Eriksen said in a taped interview aired during Friday's game against Australia. "It's kind of like I'm putting my foot into the water for the first time. I don't know what's underneath the surface, but the surface looks good."

A team with 12 rookies had little trouble in its first two games, a 7-0 win against Canada and a 4-0 win against Australia -- two opponents generally regarded as the two best teams in the world after the United States and Japan. It helped that Valerie Arioto, Amanda Chidester and Lauren Gibson, players with at least one prior year of experience on the national team, combined for eight of the team's 14 hits and six of its eight RBIs in those wins.

That theme showed up again against Japan. As good a big-game pitcher as there is in the world, Ueno is a 31-year-old veteran who still hits 70 mph on the radar gun and drops her changeup in almost 20 mph slower. Just because you've seen her before doesn't mean you can hit her, but it's hard to hit her if you haven't.

American batters who were part of the team that lost to Ueno and Japan in the world championship final last summer went 7-for-15 against her in Saturday's game, including five hits from Arioto, Chidester and Gibson.

The rest of the American lineup went 1-for-13 against Ueno.

Given that all four pitchers for Team USA are international rookies, someone had to draw the unenviable task of making her debut against reigning world champion Japan. It happened to be Creger; it could have been anyone. Japan's Misato Kawano led off the game with a home run, Japan's first of the tournament, and two more runs came across on a wild pitch and a passed ball after Hawkins came on in relief for her first senior appearance.

Yes, it was difficult not to wonder Saturday night how Keilani Ricketts might have fared in a rematch of their extra-inning duel in Whitehorse last summer, but that situation is now an unfortunate chapter in history. Jessica Moore pitched very well against Australia, Sara Nevins was strong against Canada and Creger and Hawkins have good innings ahead of them. But it remains a staff without the easily identifiable ace Team USA has always had.

It's going to take time for this to become a national team, as opposed to a group of extraordinarily talented college players.

Spare, too, a thought for Canada, which based on tiebreakers appears to be the odd team out if the United States beats Puerto Rico to finish in a three-way tie atop the standings.

The Canadian program of late has struggled to match the competitiveness achieved toward the end of the last decade. After barely missing out on a bronze medal in the 2008 Olympics, losing late against Australia in a playoff game that guaranteed at least a bronze to the winner, Canada bounced back to win world championship bronze two years later. But the Canadian program suffered as the core of its best era, most notably pitchers Danielle Lawrie and Lauren Bay, moved on to either focus on National Pro Fastpitch or endeavors off the field. Despite hosting both events, Canada failed to play for a medal in either last summer's senior world championship (with Lawrie available on a very limited basis) or this summer's junior event. Behind strong pitching from Jenna Caira and a balanced lineup, this Canadian team played to its potential and beyond.

It's not unfair if Canada misses out -- tiebreakers are tiebreakers. It's just unfortunate for a team that beat Japan and played a better game against the United States than the final score suggested.

It may well be the United States and Japan who play the final game of the World Cup, but Saturday they played the first game of the race to a world championship.