TOKYO, Japan –– In a contest that pitted world-ranked No. 1 Team USA against No. 2 Japan, the rivalry did not disappoint as the Red, White and Blue came-from-behind to record a 2-1 walk-off victory in their final round robin game of the Tokyo Olympics. Clinching their spot as the home team in tomorrow’s Gold Medal matchup, the U.S. overcame a one-run deficit and prevailed in the bottom of the seventh inning after a walk-off home run from Kelsey Stewart (Wichita, Kan.).
“I’m proud of the way we performed today,” said U.S. Olympic Softball Team Head Coach, Ken Eriksen. “I thought we hit the ball well, we just so happened to be hitting it right to the Japan defense. They made some great defensive plays on us as well; they move the ball quick which makes it difficult. Going forward into tomorrow’s game, we’re just going to have to continue putting the bat on the ball and start hitting it in the gaps.”
“To think that in March of 2020 there may have been the chance of the Olympics not happening and here we are in the Gold Medal Match versus a great program in Japan,” he added. “I don’t think you could ask for a better opportunity to play on the world stage.”
Japan scored their lone run of the game in the top of the first inning after taking advantage of two fielding miscues by the U.S. defense. A hard ground ball that was bobbled by Stewart at third base would put the leadoff batter on while a sac bunt quickly advanced her to second. A bloop base hit to left field would put another runner on base for Japan before a passed ball got away from Aubree Munro (Brea, Calif.) to allow a run to score. Ally Carda (Elk Grove, Calif.), who got the start in the circle for Team USA, stepped up with a big two-out strikeout to allow the U.S. to escape the inning without anymore damage.
Both offenses were quiet through the second and third innings with Carda retiring four of the six batters she faced with a strikeout. Japan picked up their second base hit of the game in the top of the fourth, but Carda continued her dominance with two more strikeouts and a ground out to leave the runner stranded. Despite the U.S. putting a runner on with a hit-by-pitch to Amanda Chidester (Allen Park, Mich.) in the bottom of the frame, the Japan defense once against shut down the at-bat with a double play to maintain their 1-0 lead.
A two-out single from Japan would give them their fourth baserunner of the game but another strikeout from Carda would send the U.S. back to the plate. Ali Aguilar (Orangevale, Calif.) drew a walk to put the leadoff runner on in the bottom of the fifth, but another double play by the Japan defense would quickly clear the bases before a ground out ended the inning. Cat Osterman (Houston, Texas) entered the circle in the top of the sixth, striking out the first two batters she faced before Carda returned for the remainder of the inning. The Japanese offense managed to bloop a two-out base hit to left field, but Carda remained solid under pressure with her ninth strikeout to end the at-bat.
Team USA leveled the score in the bottom of the sixth after back-to-back singles from Haylie McCleney (Morris, Ala.) and Janie Reed (Placentia, Calif.) put runners on for the U.S. With two outs and the tying run on third, Valerie Arioto (Pleasanton, Calif.) sent a ground ball through the left side of the field to plate McCleney and tie the game. A walk to Aguilar then loaded the bases before a deep fly ball from Delaney Spaulding (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.) looked to the add to the U.S. score but was caught just shy of the fence line to end the inning.
Monica Abbott (Salinas, Calif.) took over pitching duties in the top of the seventh, issuing a quick 1-2-3 inning with a strikeout and two groundouts to send the Eagles back to the plate for a chance to end the game before extra innings came into play. All that was needed, though, was an at-bat from Stewart as she sent the second pitch she saw over the right field fence to seal the 2-1 walk-off victory for the Red, White and Blue. The home run marked Team USA’s first long ball of the Tokyo Olympics while sealing their undefeated record through opening round.
The U.S. pitching staff of Carda, Osterman and Abbott totaled 12 strikeouts in the final round robin contest while limiting the Japan offense to four hits. Dominating through the entire opening round, today’s performance improved the overall strikeouts to 53 without an earned run being allowed by the U.S. pitchers. At the plate, McCleney continued to spark the U.S. offense while Reed and Arioto picked up crucial base hits in addition to Stewart's home run.
Team USA improves to 5-0 at the Tokyo Olympics and now looks ahead toward their fifth-consecutive Olympic Gold Medal game, which will take center stage tomorrow, July 27 at 8 p.m. JT / 7 a.m. ET following the Bronze Medal contest at 1 p.m. JT / 12 p.m. ET. Tomorrow’s matchup between No. 1 Team USA and No. 2 Japan will mark the two countries third meeting for the Olympic Gold Medal after going head-to-head in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and 2008 Beijing Olympics. In 2000, it was the Red, White and Blue who finished atop the podium with a 2-1 (eight innings) win over Japan while the Japanese earned the Gold in 2008 – softball’s last Olympic appearance – after the U.S. suffered a 3-1 loss. Fans from across the globe can follow along with the Olympic Softball competition through LIVE broadcasts on NBC Sports Network (NBCSN) and CNBC in addition to a live stream available on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app. Live stats are also available on USASoftball.com.