San Juan, Puerto Rico --- The USA Softball Women's National Team punched its ticket to the Pan American Games Qualifier Gold Medal Game on Saturday afternoon after coming away with a 5-0 win over Cuba. With the win, the U.S. advances to the Championship Game on Sunday (August 18) at 3:30 p.m. EST against the winner of Cuba vs. Canada Bronze Medal Game, which is scheduled for 1 p.m.
“Our team plays hard every inning of every game,” said Amanda Chidester. “We always come out with great energy and we are starting to work really great together as a team.”
Both sides were retired in order in the first inning as two fly balls and a groundout silenced USA's bats and Cuba hit three groundouts. The Red, White and Blue started the second inning off in dominant fashion, as Amanda Chidester (Allen Park, Mich.) hit a solo shot over the centerfield fence and was followed by another solo homerun by Valerie Arioto (Pleasanton, Calif.). With the back-to-back homeruns, USA led 2-0 entering the bottom half of the inning.
Cheridan Hawkins (Anderson, Calif.) continued to shut down Cuba's offense as she issued two strikeouts and a popup to Arioto at first to bring USA back to the plate. With one out, Michelle Moultrie (Jacksonville, Fla.) hit a double to put a runner on base, but was left stranded at second with as the next two U.S. batters recorded the last two outs of the inning via a groundout and a strikeout.
Cuba led off the bottom of the third with a single by Minieyis Heredia, but Lindsey Ziegenhirt (Elk Grove, Calif.) connected with shortstop Kourtney Salvarola (Arnold, Md.) to catch Heredia attempting to steal second base. Hawkins then issued a walk to the next batter, but quickly bounced back with back-to-back strikeouts.
USA would strand another two runners in the top of the fourth inning as Arioto walked and then recorded the second out of the inning after Nicole Hudson (Webb City, Mo.) hit a groundball to shortstop, who threw it to second base. Taylor Hoagland (Flower Mound, Texas) moved Hudson to second base with a single, but a strikeout ended the inning. Cuba got a single from leadoff hitter Diamela Puentes in the bottom of the fourth. The U.S. defense kept Cuba off the board, as a fly ball to center field, a bunt and a strikeout quickly squashed a Cuban rally.
The eagles would put another three runs on the board in the top of the fifth inning as Ziegenhirt led off with a walk and was followed by a single from Moultrie. Raven Chavanne (Thousand Oaks, Calif.) loaded the bases with a single before Lauren Gibson (Pasadena, Md.) hit a sac-fly to center to score Ziegenhirt and advance the runners on base. With runners at second and third, Chidester laid down a perfect squeeze bunt to score Moultrie and advanced to second on a throwing error. Arioto continued the scoring rally for the U.S. after beating out a groundball to score Chavanne. Entering the bottom of the fifth, the U.S. held a 5-0 lead.
Cuba led off the bottom half of the inning with another single, prompting a pitching change for the U.S. as Jessica Moore (Sutter, Calif.) entered the circle in relief for Hawkins. Although the runner advanced to second on a passed ball, Moore issued two strikeouts and a fly ball to center field kept the runner from scoring.
Salvarola got things going in the top of the sixth inning with a single up the middle. Cuba's new pitcher Ainsley Lopez responded with a strikeout to Ziegenhirt before Salvarola was moved to second with a sac-bunt by Moultrie. With two outs, Chavanne laid down a bunt to the pitcher, who was able to get the speedster narrowly out at first to close out the top half of the sixth.
Despite a single in the bottom of the sixth, two groundouts to Gibson at second base and a grounder to Chavanne at third kept the score at USA 5, Cuba 0 as the game headed into the final inning. The U.S. was retired in order in the top of the seventh, needing just three outs to clinch their spot in the Championship Game. USA would do just that, as Moore struck out the first batter and Cuba hit two groundballs to record the last two innings of the game.
From the circle, Hawkins finished the game with five strikeouts, one walk, three hits and no runs allowed in four complete innnings to earn the win. Moore finished the final three innings, striking out three and allowing one hit.
Team USA will play in the Championship Game tomorrow (August 18) at 3:30 p.m. EST against the winner of the 1 p.m. EST matchup of Cuba vs. Canada. Live stats and online streaming (pay-per-view) will be available throughout the Pan American Games Qualifier and links can be found at USASoftball.com.