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What's Aussie for 'choke'?

U.S. women must win to stave off elimination

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Latest: Thursday September 21, 2000 04:14 PM

 

BLACKTOWN, Australia -- I was sure Australians had a catchy expression for what has befallen the U.S. softball team this week in Sydney. But lacking a good grasp of the lingo, I went to the help desk in the main press center looking for a word or two that would describe something that fell short of expectation -- no, more like something with potential for so much right that simply went wrong. The two ladies at the desk were in instant agreement. "Oh, you mean a cock-up," the first one said. "Right, quite like that," confirmed the other. Assuring me that this was quite the pedestrian expression, they seemed puzzled at my reluctance to write it down. "Do you say that sort of thing when you go home?" one asked. Hmm, not often, and certainly never about the U.S. softball team, which until its unraveling this week had been one of the most dominant squads in any sport in or out of the Games. Maybe I'll just settle for something from Up Over like "flub" or even "disappointment." There really isn't any gentle way to say you are underachieving in the biggest tournament of your life.

 
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First, consider the standard they have set. The U.S. women won gold at the '96 Atlanta Olympics by outscoring foes 41-8. They entered the 2000 Sydney Games with an obscene 110-game winning streak. Most folks couldn't pull that off even if they were playing against their little brother. This team hadn't lost two straight games in 17 years. Star hurler Lisa Fernandez tossed seven perfect games this summer. That's the 27-year career of major leaguer Nolan Ryan wrapped up into a few months for those of you keeping score at home. A U.S. softball gold in Sydney was as predictable as a kangaroo sighting. The victory party was practically in the pouch. So what is happening?

The tournament started off as expected. Lori Harrigan tossed a no-hitter in Team USA's 6-0 win against Canada, and the U.S. followed up that victory with a 3-0 defeat of Cuba to jump to 2-0. Then came the unthinkable slump that has the team facing elimination. First the U.S. lost to Japan 2-1 in 11 innings on Monday afternoon. The team committed three uncharacteristic errors in the decisive inning: one by right fielder Leah O'Brien-Amico and two by usually sure-handed shortstop Dot Richardson. The fielding jitters continued the next day when second baseman Jennifer McFalls' throwing error led to two unearned runs in a 14-inning 2-0 loss to China. On Thursday the U.S. fell 2-1 to the host Australians, again in extra innings. Christie Ambrosi's RBI single had given the U.S. a 1-0 lead in the top of the 13th, but Peta Edabone hit a two-run shot over the leftfield fence in the bottom of the innings to send the home folks into a frenzy. Having suffered three consecutive losses, the U.S. must now defeat both New Zealand on Friday and Italy on Saturday just to stay in the tournament and move into the semifinals. "It's total voodoo," Ambrosi told reporters after the game. "We have to laugh about it, because if we don't, we're going to hang ourselves."

Despite the fielding fumbles, Fernandez said after the loss to Japan that she had let her team down. But she needn't blame herself for that defeat, nor for the one against Australia in which she gave up just two hits and struck out 25. Yes, those are me-against-the-kid-brother numbers. She described the pitch on which Edabone hit the homer as "a drop ball that didn't drop."

The real problem, besides contagious Buckner-itis, has been the team's anemic hitting.

Ambrosi's single was her first hit in 17 at bats during the Games. Fernandez, 0-for-18, was replaced in the batting order by DH Michelle Smith on Thursday. Richardson is 3-for-14. Laura Berg is 3-for-21. Scoring just two runs over 38 innings in the three losses, the U.S. has left 42 runners on base.

The U.S. softball players are every bit the pioneers the U.S. women's soccer players have been, and this is an important time for the growth of their sport at an elite level. "We have to win every game we have left," Fernandez said on Thursday. "We came here fully expecting to bring home another gold medal and we realize we can't have another loss." There is still time to find local euphemism for "back-to-back" and "dynasty."

Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Brian Cazeneuve is in Sydney covering the Games for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back daily to read Cazeneuve's behind-the-scenes reports from Down Under.

 
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