YOKOHAMA, Japan -- There hasn't been a lot of storybook endings for American teams thus far at these Tokyo Olympics. And what had all kinds of potential to be an emotional victory for USA Softball ended bitterly Tuesday night.
Japan beat the Americans 2-0 to take the gold medal in a special one-off event for these games, magnifying the importance of the near miss for the U.S. players, many of whom wiped away tears after settling for silver.
As with any high-stakes softball game, there were many little moments that ultimately proved crucial. But the entire game was summed up in the bottom of the sixth. With two on and one out and slugger Amanda Chidester up, a moment that will be remembered for a long time by the players in this game unfolded.
Chidester hit a rocket down the third-base line that smashed into Japan third baseman Yu Yamamoto's arm. At that point, the ball could've gone anywhere, and it seemed certain the Americans were going to get one run and maybe even two. But the ball bounded right to shortstop Mana Atsumi, who made a leaping catch and doubled off a runner to end the inning.
The stunned looks on the U.S. faces following that moment summed up the game.
"Fortune went the way of Japan on that," said U.S. coach Ken Eriksen. "It wasn't our day, we had some bad luck."
The Americans made many great defensive plays in the game themselves, from Janie Reed robbing a potential two-run homer with a leaping grab in left field, to right fielder Michelle Moultrie making a leaping catch, to a brilliant play by shortstop Delaney Spaulding that saved a run.
It ended up just another classic chapter in a rivalry that will be owned by Japan for the foreseeable future.
Softball was added to the games at host country Japan's request, and from the moment it became official, this matchup seemed inevitable. Japan upset Team USA in Beijing to take the gold in 2008, the last time softball was contested and the only time the Americans didn't win in the four Olympics they were contested.
There was remarkable symmetry and old rivalries at play. The starting pitching matchup, 39-year-old Japanese softball legend Yukiko Ueno against 38-year-old Texan Cat Osterman, was a rematch of the 2008 gold-medal game.
Ueno's 413-pitch performance over the last three games in Beijing is regarded as one of the most impressive in the sport's history. The performance Ueno gave in this one wasn't quite the same in terms of endurance, but considering the circumstances, it will be savored in her home country.
A day after losing a pool play game to the Americans when allowing a walk-off homer, Ueno gave up just two hits over six shutout innings, providing the steady start her team needed.
"It just proves the peak age for softball players is not 22," said U.S. pitcher Monica Abbott, who turns 36 on Wednesday. "In some ways I think she's a softball god. Things always go her way."
Osterman was not as strong and was lifted after two innings. The Americans ended up using three pitchers, including Abbott, who like Osterman is regarded as one of the best pitchers in U.S. history.
After giving up just two runs in the entire tournament coming in, none of the U.S. pitchers were sharp. Ally Carda, who pitched 2 2/3 innings in relief of Osterman, gave up two runs on three hits, taking the loss.
One run was scored on an infield single by Atsumi and another when Yamato Fujita came through with a two-out hit for insurance in the fifth inning.
"You have your eye on that prize and to not accomplish that, it stings," Osterman said. "I've never been on a team that had so much fight."
Other than the wild double play in the sixth, the only other time the U.S. threatened was in the first, when Reed tripled, but was out at the plate when she tried to score on a wild pitch.
"In our game sometimes the scoreboard lies," Eriksen said. "You can play a really, really good game and not end up on the side of winning."