On home soil, in an event their nation rescued from a state of Olympic neglect specifically for these Games, Japan’s softball team delivered a near-flawless defensive performance to defeat the United States 2-0 in a gold medal rematch 13 years in the making.
Japan successfully defended its gold medal from Beijing 2008 – the last time softball was contested at the Olympics – as the U.S. took a second consecutive silver medal.
The pitching matchup was a poetically familiar one. Exactly 4,724 days after squaring off in the final in Beijing, 38-year-old Cat Osterman and 39-year-old Ueno Yukiko shared the pitching circle once again.
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And once again, it was Ueno – backed by her sensational fielders – who got the better of the matchup. She dealt six shutout innings, allowing just two hits and striking out five.
Osterman, conversely, was unable to locate her best stuff and lasted just one batter into the third inning. Japanese hitters reached base in each frame against the two-time Olympic medalist, though stellar defense from the U.S. fielders kept the game scoreless
Michele Moultrie produced the game's first of several highlight reel plays in the bottom of the second, robbing Ichiguchi Yuka of an RBI extra-base hit with a spinning grab at the wall.
After Osterman began the top of the third with a walk, Team USA head coach Ken Eriksen removed her from the game in favor of relief pitcher Ally Carda. Osterman allowed two hits and did not record a strikeout.
Carda – with the help of second baseman Ali Aguilar – got the U.S. out of a third inning jam to keep Osterman’s earned run total for the tournament at zero.
In top of the fourth, though, Japan scraped across the first run of the game on an infield single by Atsumi Mana, driving in Fujita Yamato from third.
Midway through the fifth inning, Monica Abbott, the game's lone other participant from the 2008 final, entered as Team USA’s third pitcher. She allowed a single to her first batter, Fujita, scoring an inherited runner to give Japan a 2-0 lead.
All along, Ueno piled up the outs. She exited after five shutout innings but was not done for the night.
Relief pitcher Goto Miu worked into trouble in the sixth as the United States put runners on first and second. One of the wildest defensive plays in Olympic softball history got Japan out of the inning. Amanda Chidester's sharp line drive deflected off the glove of third base player Yamamoto and into the waiting arms of Atsumi at shortstop. Atsumi then relayed the ball to second base to pick off Moultrie for the improbable inning-ending double play.
In the top of the seventh, desperate to keep the Japanese lead at two, U.S. left fielder Janie Reed made a brilliant catch high over the wall to rob Fujita of a sure home run.
But the U.S. could not put a runner aboard in the seventh as Ueno returned to close out the game, clinching her second Olympic gold medal.
The U.S. team will once again face an extended wait for their next crack at a fourth softball Olympic gold medal. The sport is not scheduled to take place at the Paris 2024 Olympics, though it could potentially return for Los Angeles 2028. A victory there would mark the second time the U.S. has won softball gold on home soil, after triumphing in the sport's Olympic debut at the Atlanta 1996 Games.