Japan tops Australia in softball as delayed Tokyo Games open

AP Sports

The Olympic rings painted on the field are seen through a net as U.S. softball players take batting practice at the Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in Fukushima, Japan. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

FUKUSHIMA, Japan (AP) — Yukiko Ueno had waited 4,718 days for this moment, 13 long years that included an extra delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Finally, after all the doubts the Tokyo Olympics would ever take place, she was back on the mound trying to start her country to another softball gold medal.

“Before the game I was actually trying to calm down and not let myself overly feel excited about this opportunity to go back to the mound for the Olympics,” she said through a translator. “I was overly thinking.”

The 39-year-old pitcher settled down from a shaky start to allow two hits over 4 1/3 innings in a nearly empty stadium, and host Japan got off to a winning start when the Olympics got underway, beating Australia 8-1 Wednesday. The U.S. defeated Italy 2-0 in the second game of a tripleheader.

Playing about 150 miles north of the main Olympic sites in Tokyo, the teams lined up for the national anthems in a stadium with a listed capacity of 30,000 that had about 50 spectators, presumably team and Olympic officials, plus media.

The first two days of the softball tournament are being played about 40 miles from the site of a 2011 nuclear power plant disaster. The rest of the tournament will be in Yokohama, near Tokyo.

“It’s kind of a disappointment,” Ueno said. “We wanted to demonstrate our play in front of people of Fukushima, who have made a lot of efforts to reconstruct Fukushima.”

Fans were barred from the Olympics because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many in Japan have questioned whether the Olympics should take place at all with low levels of vaccination in the nation.

“Australia can create its own excitement,” third baseman Stacey Porter said.

Ueno, who won the 2008 gold medal game, struck out seven and threw 85 pitches for the win.

Minori Naito and Saki Yamazaki hit two-run homers off loser Kaia Parnaby and Yu Yamamoto, who had three RBIs, added a two-run drive against Tarni Stepto in the fifth that ended the game under a rout rule.

Ueno started Australia’s Michelle Cox off with a ball at 9:02 a.m. at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium, beginning an Olympics whose viability has been repeatedly questioned.

It was 88 degrees with 60% humidity for the morning start, which had the sun in the eyes of left-handed batters. The artificial turf made it seem even warmer, and Stepto pitched without a cap.

Ueno forced in a run in the first by hitting Chelsea Forkin with a pitch, her second straight hit batter.

Yamamoto singled in a run in the bottom half and Japan took a 3-1 lead in the third when Naito fouled off a 1-2 changeup, and drove a hanging changeup over the left-center field fence.

Yamazaki reached on a grounder leading off the fourth when Forkin dropped the throw at first, and Fujita drove a 1-0 pitch over the 220-foot fence in left center. Nodoka Harada added a sacrifice fly off Stepto for a 6-1 lead.

Japan is the defending softball gold medalist after upsetting the U.S. in the 2008 final. Softball and baseball were dropped for 2012 and 2016 and restored for this year’s Olympics. They already have been dropped for the 2024 Paris Games and are likely to be restored for 2028 in Los Angeles.

Japan coach Reika Utsugi had thought Ueno would be especially ready for the opener.

“She was the reason we that became so strong a team,” Utsugi said, “and we were able to dream about winning the gold.”

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