Rachel Garcia pitches at the USA Softball International Cup on July 14, 2018 in Irvine, Calif.
Every time the U.S. women’s softball team takes the field, the players do so with the intention of winning.
That desire only intensifies when it’s the world championships, and now that there’s an Olympic qualifying spot on the line this year’s tournament becomes even more important for the defending champs.
“Obviously the stakes are a little higher,” infielder Valerie Arioto said. “Our motto is to win gold every time, but this is important because it will qualify us for the Olympics. We don’t ignore that fact, but we do want to stay within our process.”
The WBSC Women’s Softball World Championship opened Aug on Thursday in Chiba, Japan. The top-ranked U.S. team is in a group that includes Mexico, Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands, the Philippines, South Africa and Puerto Rico. Team USA opens preliminary-round play on Friday against No. 7 Mexico.
Already this summer the U.S. squad has proven itself to have a lethal combination of pitching — especially with the return of Olympian Monica Abbott to the mound — and powerful bats in the lineup. USA Red, one of two national teams playing this summer and the one that is taking part in these world championships, went undefeated at the USA Softball International Cup and defeated rival Japan 10-5 in the title game in July.
It’s a roster that features the core of the 2016 world championship team, including Arioto and outfielder Michelle Moultrie, the longest-tenured players who are at their fourth world championship.
Moultrie said in addition to Team USA’s ability both on the mound and at the plate, the team arrives in Japan with great compatibility, with everyone taking responsibility for the plays.
“Most of the time in college you have coaches who are extremely involved, always calling plays and very much in control of what’s going on,” she said. “But at this level your shortstop and your second baseman are always talking, and they’re the ones making the calls out there. The catchers call their own game, and the pitchers don’t just throw whatever sign someone puts down. They have their own feel for the game so the pitchers and catchers are always working together. For me it’s cool to see the elite level of communication that’s happening on the field.”
For Arioto, one of the things that makes the team difficult to beat is their motto of “be productive.”
“Whether it’s extending an at-bat, getting a sacrifice bunt down, (forcing) the defense to make a play, our whole thing is get as much as possible done during the game to win every pitch, at-bat, inning, game,” she said. “We’re really focused on doing the little things right, and that’s what makes us a good, selfless team. We’re each trying to be productive for each other and hopefully that turns into runs scored and games won.”
Since arriving in Japan, the team had been staying and training at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni. The time gave the players a chance to not only practice and talk through things they want to do on the field but also bond off the field by taking in some of the local culture, such as seeing how green tea is made and dressing up in kimonos.
With Abbott being the only Olympian on the team after the sport was dropped from the program following the 2008 Games in Beijing, Moultrie said the team is still learning and growing together and taking in the experience of preparing for the Olympics for the first time. That includes having access to more resources than they’ve had in recent years, including a team nutritionist and strength coach.
The winner of this year’s world championships will automatically qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Since Japan has a host country quota already, if they should win then the silver medalist would get the spot. Japan is also the defending Olympic champions.
The 2016 world title was the first for the Americans since 2010 and their 10th overall. They defeated Japan, who won the title in both 2012 and 2014. Although a number of countries have seen significant improvements to their programs over the years, and the U.S. athletes stress the importance of never overlooking an opponent, chances are good that the title game will once again come down to No. 1 Team USA versus No. 2 Japan.
That in itself isn’t an easy task. Pair it with the fact that they’re playing in Japan, where they’re crazy about softball and where excitement about the Olympics is already strong, and such a contest could be difficult.
It’s a prospect that the U.S. players find exciting.
“Last year we played in the Tokyo Dome and there were 30,000 people there or something like that,” Moultrie said. “We just get excited, whether people are cheering for you or not it’s still so cool. We’re going to be really excited no matter who we play. We have a standard of excellence and we want to be the best, so we’re excited to be defending champions and have that pressure, if you could call it that. We thrive off that.”