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Monday, September 25
Two down, one to go for U.S.

BLACKTOWN, Australia -- Cheered on by its baseball brethren in the morning and its soccer sisters at night, the U.S. softball team avenged two of its three first-round losses on Monday to sweep into the gold-medal game.

Jennifer McFalls, who scored the winning run over Australia, hugs teammate Christie Ambrosi after the 1-0 victory by the U.S. put them in the gold-medal game.

Stacey Nuveman homered in the third extra inning to beat China 3-0 in the first game and set up a grudge match with Australia. In the nightcap, Lisa Fernandez struck out 13 Aussies to win 1-0 and advance to the championship against unbeaten Japan.

"The three teams that knocked us off in the round-robin are the teams that we have to get through to get the gold," Nuveman said. "We took care of China. We took care of Australia. Now we have to take care of Japan."

Australia won the bronze medal. China, which lost to the Americans in the gold-medal game in the 1996 Olympics but beat them 2-0 in 14 innings in the round-robin this year, finished fourth.

Heavily favored before a three-game losing streak brought them to the brink of elimination, the Americans clinched at least a bronze earlier in the day when Nuveman homered in the 10th to beat China.

Michelle Smith struck out 10 in eight innings before Christa Williams pitched two hitless innings for the victory. Tom Lasorda and the U.S. baseball team, which came by after practicing on an adjacent field, celebrated by chanting "U-S-A!"

The crowds at the night game were more hostile, hoping to cheer their Aussies to the gold medal. But the women's soccer team made itself heard, coming out to the Sydney suburbs after arriving from Canberra earlier in the day.

"The baseball team, when they came to that game, it was a tremendous lift for us," Fernandez said. "And then to look up in the stands and see the women's soccer team up there ... I just want to thank the fans of USA softball who stuck with us through the tough times."

Mocking a local cheer heard endlessly in Australia, the soccer players spurred Fernandez on by yelling, "Lisa! Lisa! Lisa! Oi! Oi! Oi!"

And, after two stellar but disappointing performances against the Aussies, Fernandez finally finished them off.

Bouncing around in the pitcher's circle like a boxer between rounds, Fernandez allowed just one hit and one walk. She retired the last 12 batters, fanning eight in a row to get the first out in the seventh.

But the next two batters posed problems: they had both homered off Fernandez in the Olympics before.

Peta Edebone, who hit a 13th-inning homer off her to win in the preliminaries, grounded out to third with one out in the seventh. Joanne Brown, who hit a game-winning homer off Fernandez in the Americans' only loss of the 1996 Olympics -- spoiling a perfect game in the 10th -- bounced it back to the mound to end the game.

"They are the ones who caused her trouble," U.S. coach Ralph Raymond said. "I'm sure that was playing on her mind."

The Americans had not scored a run in regulation in any of its four previous games against playoff teams. But this time they took care of things early, scoring with two outs in the fifth.

Nuveman's grounder eluded shortstop Natalie Ward, then Leah O'Brien-Amico singled. Dot Richardson followed with a single to center that Simmone Morrow let by, enabling pinch-runner Jennifer McFalls to score without a throw.

"It was just nice to score a run before the 10th or 14th inning," Michelle Venturella said.

Japan advanced directly to the gold medal game by beating Australia 1-0 in the first semifinal, which matched the two top-ranked teams after the preliminaries. China and the United States were Nos. 3 and 4.

The unusual playoff system employed in softball gives the loser of the first semifinal another chance at the gold medal game if it can beat the winner of the other semifinal.

It also gives the Americans a chance to avenge its three earlier defeats that snapped a 112-game winning streak.

"It was, like, 'All right, we dug our grave. Now we've got to get ourselves out of it," Nuveman said. "So what if a 112-game streak got broken. The five-game streak (to win the gold medal) is what we want.

"We're four-fifths of the way there."


U.S. puts extra work in again to beat China in softball

U.S. makes softball medal round after shutout of Italy

U.S. softball ends skid, beats New Zealand

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