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U.S. guarantees medal

Softball team will get at least a bronze after beating China 3-0 in 10.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 25, 2000

[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Stacey Nuveman hits the big HR in the 10th to beat China 2-0.
BLACKTOWN, Australia -- In a major upset, the United States softball team scored a run. It was promptly announced the Americans would receive an Olympic medal.

Well, it sorta happened that way.

For the fourth time in six games, the United States found itself in a scoreless tie in the 10th inning. The previous three games ended in losses. One more defeat and the world's top-ranked team would leave the Olympics without a medal.

Catcher Stacey Nuveman bailed out the United States with a three-run homer down the leftfield line with one out in the 10th for a 3-0 win against China on Sunday.

The Americans advanced into a medal game against Australia a few hours later. The Americans are guaranteed a bronze medal. They would play Japan for the gold medal if they beat Australia.

"The idea of leaving here without a medal never crossed our minds," third baseman Lisa Fernandez said. "It was not something we ever pondered."

China will leave without a medal and was not happy about it. Four years ago in Atlanta, the United States beat the Chinese when Dot Richardson hit a disputed home run down the rightfield line. Nuveman's blast went to the other side of the field but also was questioned by the Chinese.

It was a hooking line drive that appeared to be foul by the time it landed, but the third base umpire ruled it was in fair territory at the point it crossed the fence.

"It was fair by that much," U.S. coach Ralph Raymond said, holding his hands 6 inches apart. "It is ironic that it happened that way again."

The United States lost to China 2-0 in 14 innings in the preliminary round, and Nuveman just missed hitting a winning home run in that game. The ball hooked foul.

"For a second, I was thinking it was going to be the same thing," Nuveman said. "But it looked like it had just enough to stay fair, so I had a hunch that it was going to be good."

Before Nuveman's shot, the story of the game was the rematch between pitchers Michelle Smith and Yanqing Zhang. They battled in the preliminary game Wednesday, with Zhang throwing 14 shutout innings and Smith losing after China scored two unearned runs in the 14th.

Smith, a Treasure Island resident, threw eight shutout innings Sunday before giving way to Christa Williams. Smith has not given up an earned run in the Olympics, with 37 strikeouts in 272/3 innings. For all that work, she also does not have a win.

"It'd be nice to have three or four wins, but that really doesn't mean anything right now," Smith said. "All I'm thinking about is getting to the podium together. The statistics are nice for people to look back on, but it's the color of the medal that matters."

Nuveman also was the defensive star, snuffing out two potential rallies. China put leadoff hitters on first in the second and seventh, and Nuveman picked off both. She may have made the game-saving out in the seventh; Qiang Wei doubled one batter later.

"This team has so much talent, we don't have to depend on any one player. Whoever gets the big hit or makes the big play, we're more than happy to let them be the star," Fernandez said. "If everybody plays their role, we're going to get the job done."

The U.S. baseball team, which had the day off, arrived in the sixth inning and led the crowd in several chants.

"That meant the world to us," Smith said. "(Manager) Tommy Lasorda told us he was going to bring the guys along to cheer us on. Just hearing them chanting U-S-A was awesome. That's American patriotism at its best."

The victory may have been the biggest of the year for the United States, but a difficult road still is ahead. Australia beat the Americans 2-1 in 13 innings Thursday, and Japan beat the U.S. 2-1 in 11 innings Tuesday.

"The beauty of this team is our heart and our fight," Nuveman said. "A lot of teams would have given up after losing those three games. They would have thought, "Maybe they're better than us.' We know we have the weapons and the tools. We just have to keep on trucking."

Japan and Australia finished as the top two seeds in the preliminary round and met in a semifinal game Sunday. Japan won 1-0 to advance.

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