Monica Abbott pitches against Italy at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 21, 2021 in Fukushima, Japan.
TOKYO – Monica Abbott looked right at home pitching a complete game with nine strikeouts in Team USA’s 1-0 victory over Canada in the Olympic softball tournament Thursday.
After all, Japan is Abbott’s home away from home. When she isn’t playing for the Red, White and Blue, Abbott is pitching for the Toyota Red Terriers. She has helped her pro team win six Japan Softball League titles and was a five-time league MVP.
Hopefully there will be no hard feelings if Abbott, who has honed her skills in Japan since 2010, plays a major role in denying the host country a second Olympic gold medal. Known for her velocity, Abbott’s pitches have been clocked at 70 miles per hour.
Hey, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the batter’s box.
“As an athlete, playing in Japan gave me an opportunity to learn about myself more,” Abbott, who will turn 36 in a week, told Japanese media earlier this summer. “It’s an area where I developed and grew as a professional. I don’t know if I would still be playing softball if I didn’t come to Japan.”
Abbott was the youngest player on Team USA in 2008, the last time softball was played at the Olympic Games before it was dropped from the program (along with baseball) in 2012 and 2016. Abbott pitched the final two innings in Beijing as the three-time defending Olympic champions suffered a 3-1 upset loss to Japan.
When the 6-foot-3 left-hander was invited to play in Japan, she said, “I was a little hesitant because Japan was the USA’s rival. We had just lost to them (at the Olympics), but on the other side I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have an opportunity to extend my career and learn from the Japanese side of softball.’”
Team USA is ranked No. 1 in the world, with Japan No. 2. Abbott retired from Team USA after helping the Americans win the 2010 world championships, then returned in 2018 in time for another American victory. Team USA also won in 2016 without Abbott while Japan won the world title in 2012 and 2014.
She told Japanese media that she definitely thinks about that loss 13 years ago. “I feel like I’ve grown a lot since then,” Abbott said. “The Olympics are something that stick with you for a long period of time and stick with the world for a long period of time. So if I don’t remember it, everyone else reminds me of it.”
Six teams are competing in this Olympic round-robin. The two teams with the best records will meet in the gold-medal game, with the next two playing for the bronze.
While the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 officially start with the Opening Ceremony on Friday night, softball is one of the sports getting a head start with two days of play at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium. Team USA has a 2-0 record after taking a 2-0 win over Italy on Wednesday.
Nerves appeared to play a factor in the opener as Team USA did not get on the scoreboard until the fourth inning. Against Canada, ranked No. 3 in the world, Team USA had seven hits, but left nine runners stranded.
The Americans broke the tie in the top of the fifth inning when Haylie McCleney led off with a single, moving to second base on Janie Reed’s sacrifice bunt.
As Amanda Chidester came up to bat, her teammates chanted “Chiddy Chiddy Bang Bang,” and she delivered with a RBI single to right field to score McCleney.
But it was Abbott’s arm that carried the day. NBC commentator Jessica Mendoza, an Olympic gold medalist who played alongside Abbott, said Abbott is “one of the hardest throwing pitchers in the entire game.”
She has also worked to develop an effective change-up. Abbott allowed only one hit, walking three batters, with one intentional.
In the bottom of the seventh inning, Team USA head coach Ken Eriksen had to decide between sticking with Abbott or going with Cat Osterman, who pitched six scoreless innings on Wednesday or another pitcher.
Abbott closed out the game, just as she did in pitching the seventh inning of the victory over Italy.
After moving to Yokohama, the Americans will face Mexico on July 24and Australia on July 25. What could be the first of two showdowns with Japan will come on July 26.
Abbott said playing in Japan for so many years has helped her “have more clarity. It’s really challenged me to become a better athlete. I think Japan has the best professional league in the world for softball. So it really challenged me to step my game up.”
The native of Salinas, California, played collegiate softball for the University of Tennessee, where she became the NCAA Division I leader in wins, strikeouts, shutouts and innings. She won the Honda Sports Award in 2007.
In 2008, Abbott threw the first Olympic perfect game as Team USA beat the Netherlands 8-0 in in five innings.
She said it is fitting that softball returned to the Olympic program in Japan, “a country that is so strong in this sport.
“They eat and breathe softball. Their practice regimen has opened my eyes in the way they train for games. They train foot speed, they train agility, they train biometrics. Their defensive speed and agility has been huge. Their overall athleticism on that side has been great to experience first-hand.”