Haylie McCleney competes in a game against Italy at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 21, 2021.
TOKYO – And so the Games began.
The long-awaited Olympics Tokyo 2020 started Wednesday – two days before the Opening Ceremony - after a one-year delay due to the pandemic.
Fittingly, the Games began with a sport that has waited 13 years to return to the Olympic stage.
Team USA defeated Italy 2-0 in softball in the second-game of a triple-header at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium.
Center fielder Haylie McCleney said it was difficult dealing with the uncertainty surrounding the Games. “You know when water is boiling, and you start to see bubbles,” she said, “then all of a sudden a lot of bubbles? I think that’s what today felt like. Leading up to this moment, building up, building up, building up, then today was just, ‘Oh my God, it’s finally here.’
“It’s amazing. Now that we have one game settled, the rest of the tournament should be pretty smooth sailing.”
Cat Osterman pitched the first six innings for Team USA, recording nine strikeouts, while Monica Abbott came on in relief for the final inning, striking out three.
TEAM USA WINS 🦅— USA Softball Women's National Team 🇺🇸 (@USASoftballWNT) July 21, 2021
🇺🇸 2 | 🇮🇹 0 pic.twitter.com/xZHiCBOSIW
The two left-handers were the only American players who also played in the 2008 Olympics, the last time softball and baseball were on the Olympic program.
Osterman, 38, and Abbott, 35, also were on the mound in the gold-medal game in Beijing when Japan upset Team USA 3-1. The United States had won every previous Olympic softball tournament, starting at the Atlanta Games 25 years ago and continuing in Sydney and Athens.
After baseball and softball were unceremoniously dropped from the Olympics, the sports teamed up to fight for readmission, winning the right to play in at least one more Games. Or as USA Softball calculated, that was a hiatus of 4,717 days.
“It’s a little bit emotional and surreal that we’re finally here, but wow, softball is finally back in the Olympics,” Abbott said after a pre-Games practice. “We want to put on a great show. We want to show the world how much our sport has truly grown. We hope that people across the globe tune in across all platforms – TV, online, social media – as we use the Tokyo Games as a stepping stone into the future of softball.”
Unfortunately, softball and baseball will likely be left out of the Paris 2024 Olympics. They are still pitching for admission to the Los Angeles 2028 Games and now also have hopes of playing in 2032 in Brisbane, which was announced later Wednesday as a future Olympic and Paralympic host.
Team USA came into the six-team Tokyo tournament ranked No. 1 in the world, followed by Japan at No. 2, Canada at No. 3, Mexico at No. 5, Australia at No. 8 and Italy at No 9. In the other games to open the round-robin, Japan got an 8-1 run-rule win over Australia in three innings and Canada defeated Mexico 4-0.
Although Team USA carried momentum from a 37-1-1 record in the “Stand Beside Her” tour presented by Major League Baseball, the Americans got off to a slow start while most of their home country was sleeping.
The pitcher’s duel between Osterman and Greta Ceccetti of Italy, played in 90-degree heat in the empty stadium so quiet you could hear the players’ chatter, was scoreless until the bottom of the fourth inning. Valerie Arioto then singled up the middle for the first hit of the game. She advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Ali Aguilar and scored on Michelle Moultrie’s single.
The Americans added another run in the fifth inning, with Aubree Munroe scoring on a sacrifice fly by Janie Reed, whose husband, pitcher Jake Reed, made his Major League Baseball debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers earlier this month.
Team USA finished with five hits while Italy had one hit and two errors.
Beginning the softball tournament in Fukushima was also a symbol of rejuvenation. The city, which is about 150 miles from Tokyo, was the site of a nuclear accident in 2011 caused by an earthquake and tsunami
Another triple-header will be held Thursday, with Team USA facing Canada, before the tournament moves to Yokohama. Team USA plays Mexico on July 24 (Tokyo time), Australia July 25 and then meets arch-rival Japan on July 26. The top two teams after the round robin will play for the gold with the next two teams vying for the bronze.
Since Beijing, there have been five world championships with the United States winning in 2010, 2016 and 2018 and Japan winning in 2012 and 2014. The two countries played in the final game in each of those world championships. In 2018, the game was tied 6-6 after nine innings before the Americans scored in the 10th.
The U.S. has won 11 of the 16 world titles, including nine of the last 11.
Team USA now has a 33-5 record in the Olympics.
Osterman came out of retirement when softball’s return to the Olympics was assured, turning down a chance to be considered for the coaching pool.
She has a gold medal from 2004 and the silver from 2008.
“It was my goal to get us a good start to the game to set the tone,” Osterman said, “and I’m really happy with the way we all performed today.”