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Softball looking for runs

The lack of offense in the Olympics stirs debated over how to help the batters.

By Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 25, 2000

BLACKTOWN, Australia -- Three no-hitters in 28 games.

Only one team hitting above .200.

Olympic softball desperately needs offense as it heads into the medal round. Even the sport's bosses are concerned that games are becoming big yawns because pitchers are so dominant.

"We certainly want to make it more appealing to the fans," Don Porter, president of the International Softball Federation, said last week at the Blacktown Olympic Center. "We want to see our sport develop worldwide."

How bad is the problem?

Japanese ace Juri Takayama won five games in the preliminary round with a 0.34 earned-run average that barely broke the top 10. Nine pitchers had ERAs of 0.00.

U.S. pitchers broke the tournament's strikeout record on consecutive nights, raising it from 15 to 25. In the United States-Australia game, the teams whiffed 43 times, though those numbers were inflated by the extra innings made necessary by the teams' inability to score in regulation.

Of the four teams that made the medal round -- the United States, Australia, Japan and China -- none had an ERA above 1.00. U.S. pitchers fanned 100 while allowing one earned run in seven games.

Ron Radigonda, executive director of the Amateur Softball Association of America, the sport's U.S. governing body, said he thinks the international federation "has seen enough in this tournament that they're ready to see if something needs to be done."

"I don't want to say juice up the ball because people get into the whole baseball thing. But it could be a little bit more lively, which is going to give us a little more offense," he said.

International softball already starts every half-inning after the ninth with a runner on second for fear that without it, teams might never score.

Radigonda suggests three solutions:

Move the pitching rubber back 3 feet, so it is 43 feet from home plate. This is the most frequently cited solution, in part because 43 feet is the rule in NCAA games.

Change the dimensions of the outfield from the standard 200 feet in all directions to 190 down the lines and 220 in center. This would make it easier to hit homers down the line and would change some hits that would have been long gap singles into doubles.

And yes, maybe make the ball harder so it will travel farther when batters hit it. The international federation also may consider using an optic ball like the yellow one used in NCAA games, Porter said.

"If we want to expose the sport to the masses, I think we need to look into it," Radigonda said. "If we want the sport to grow internationally, it's got to have liveliness. The purists in the game would hate it because they love 30-inning 0-0 games. But that's not going to put fans in the seats."

Much of the talk at the Olympics has been about moving the pitcher's circle back. Men play at 46 feet, and though male pitchers throw as much as 10 mph faster than females, offense is not as scarce.

Women pitch from 43 feet in college, and they did in the Women's Professional Softball League until the league moved the circle to 40 feet in an attempt to attract players more comfortable with the international game.

U.S. stays alive

The United States still has a chance at a gold medal. It's just taking more work than expected.

Heavily favored before a three-game losing streak brought them to the brink of elimination, the Americans clinched at least a bronze medal when Stacey Nuveman homered in the third extra inning to beat China 3-0.

The deep drive gave the Americans their first extra-inning win after three losses. The homer started the crowd, led by manager Tom Lasorda and the U.S. baseball team, into a chant of "U-S-A!"

China, which lost to the Americans in the gold medal game in 1996 and beat them 2-0 in 14 innings in the round robin portion of this tournament, finished fourth.

Having avenged one of their preliminary round losses, the Americans will try to do the same against Australia. The winner plays Japan in the gold medal game.

Japan beat Australia 1-0 earlier in the day.

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