YOKOHAMA, Japan – Cat Osterman didn’t know if she would ever have another chance to play in an Olympic gold medal softball game, but when it finally arrived Tuesday night, the 38-year-old pitcher was reminded of how cruel her sport can be.
In the sixth inning, with her top-ranked United States team trailing by two runs to rival Japan and rallying with two runners on, one out and the powerful Amanda Chidester at the plate, Osterman stood in the dugout and felt hope. She watched as Chidester unleashed on a fastball, rocketing a line drive down the third base line. Her teammate Michelle Moultrie broke from second.
The ball ricocheted off the arm of Japan third baseman Yu Yamamoto, and it that moment, it could have gone just about anywhere and tied the game. But instead, the ball landed in the glove of shortstop Mana Atsumi, who then doubled-off Moultrie to end the United States’ best chance to score.
“I’ve never seen that happen,” Osterman said, and in all of her years of softball, that was the play that decided her final Olympic game, a 2-0 win for Japan that denied Osterman and her veteran teammate, 35-year-old pitcher Monica Abbott, a chance to avenge their loss to the Japanese in the gold medal game of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
The sting of that defeat had stuck with both women – and how fitting was it, that on Tuesday night, they would both square off against Japan’s starting pitcher from that game 13 years ago, 39-year-old Yukiko Ueno. They are considered the three best pitchers of their generation, and they all may have played their final game in the Olympics, because the 2024 Games will not offer the sport.
“I think if this game showed anything, it showed exactly what we’ve been preaching all along, that it is a global sport, that it is competitive in other places other than the United States and Japan,” Osterman said. “It’s also a sport that allows a lot of female athletes to be successful . . . that gives younger female athletes a dream, when you have an Olympic dream alive.”
They all worried about the future of their sport as they took the diamond Tuesday, and then they all chipped in to deliver a vintage U.S.-Japan softball battle that featured stellar pitching and a series of stunning defensive plays on a night when the U.S. only produced three hits. Osterman and Abbott were also vulnerable after entering the night having dominated the tournament. They had pitched all but 5 1/3 innings in round-robin play and had not given up an earned run, while surrendering just six hits.
Osterman gave up the leadoff hits in the first inning and a double in the second, and her defense had to bail her out to get out of each frame unscathed. With two outs and a runner on third, shortstop Delaney Spaulding stopped a laser of a groundball with a backhand and then made a strong throw to get the final out in the first, and right fielder Michelle Moultrie saved another run with an acrobatic catch at the wall to end the second.
Osterman continued to struggle with her command and was pulled in favor of Ally Carda in the bottom of the third after giving up a leadoff walk. Carda allowed the game’s first run when Japan scored on an infield single from Atsumi. Abbott, who had won or saved every game for the United States in these Olympics, came on in the fifth. But she left a pitch high and outside to Yamato Fujita, who drove a single into center field to make it 2-0.
The Americans had struggled at the plate in five round robin games, and on Tuesday they couldn’t solve Ueno, the legendary pitcher who tossed the first seven-inning perfect game in Olympic history in Athens in 2004, and threw more than 600 pitches in a four-day span at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
She had begun playing for Japan’s national team around the same time Osterman joined Team USA, and she has worked with Abbott, who has played professional softball in Japan for more than a decade.
“We respect each other,” Ueno said of Osterman and Abbott. “It doesn’t matter how old you are . . . softball brings joy to everyone.
On Tuesday night, Ueno perplexed the Americans by mixing speeds and changing zones, giving up just two hits and striking out five.
“She’s competitive; she’s intense. I think the coolest thing about her is she reinvents herself. She’s like a softball god, things always go her way,” Abbott said.
Things went Japan’s way in the sixth after the freak line drive found the arm of Yamamoto and the glove of Atsumi.
“When that happens you’re just like, ‘Wow.’ It hits you in the gut,” Abbott said. “If that goes through, I think we probably tie the game, and maybe even go up.”
Instead, after the Americans couldn’t put anything together in the seventh, Osterman and Abbott watched as Japan’s players mobbed Ueno after the game. They were the only two players who had remembered the feeling of losing in 2008, when in the months after, the sport was wiped from the Olympic slate.
The feeling was similar on Tuesday, given the knowledge that the sport will not being played in the Paris Olympics. All three players will likely be gone from the sport at that point. Osterman hugged all of her younger teammates after the loss, and after she was done, she turned to Japan’s dugout and waved. Ueno and her teammates waved back.
“The end result was not what we wanted,” Osterman said, “but the journey was incredible.”