Japan tops Australia, Italy suffers shutout loss in softball as delayed Tokyo Games open

The game was played in a nearly empty stadium. Fans were barred from the Olympics because of the coronavirus pandemic, which caused a one-year delay.

Yukiko Ueno of Japan in action.   -  REUTERS

Host Japan got off to a winning start when the Tokyo Olympics got underway after a one-year delay, beating Australia 8-1 on Wednesday in softball behind 39-year-old pitcher Yukiko Ueno, who won the 2008 gold medal game against the United States.

The game was played in a nearly empty stadium. Fans were barred from the Olympics because of the coronavirus pandemic, which caused a one-year delay. Many in Japan have questioned whether the Olympics should take place at all with low levels of vaccination in the nation.

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Ueno allowed two hits over 4 1/3 innings and struck out seven, throwing 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 with a ball at 9:02 a.m. before a nearly empty Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium, beginning an Olympics whose viability has been repeatedly questioned.

Playing about 150 miles from the main Olympics 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.

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It was 88 degrees with 60 percent 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 for a 6-1 off Stepto for a 6-1 lead.

Australia left the bases loaded in the fifth when reliever Miu Goto threw a called third strike past Forkin.

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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.

Most of the approximately 11,000 athletes are in the Tokyo area.

Japan is 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 these Olympics. They already have been dropped for the 2024 Paris Games and are likely to be restored for 2028 in Los Angeles.

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Italy draws fuel from late coach, seeks first medal

Cat Osterman looked ahead, not behind, in the start of the United States’ quest to regain the Olympic softball gold medal, 13 years after she lost the championship game.

A 38-year-old left-hander and one of two remaining players from 2008, Osterman pitched one-hit ball over six innings and struck out nine to beat Italy 2-0 on Wednesday in searing heat and wilting humidity as the Olympics got underway.

“Today was about today,” she said. “If I use ’08 as motivation, then I’m selfish. This is not about me. This is not about a silver medal that happened. This is about this team and allowing these athletes that are younger than me to be able to live out an Olympic dream and hopefully get to that top step on the podium. So today was totally about how are we going to beat Italy and how am I going to help this team get started.”

Michelle Moultrie singled in a run in the fourth inning for the top-ranked U.S., which lost the title to Japan 3-1 at the 2008 Beijing Games. Janie Reed, the wife of Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Jake Reed, added a sacrifice fly in the fifth.

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Canada hunt for elusive medal off to winning start against Mexico

Canada closed Wednesday's action by beating Olympics newcomer Mexico 4-0 after gaining four no-hit innings from Sara Groenewegen, who three years ago survived 10 days in a coma while battling Legionnaries’ disease, a sometimes deadly form of pneumonia.

Canada is the only team out of five that have played in each of the four Olympics tournaments to have never won a medal.

All six teams face each other once over six days before the top four advance to the medal games. The first two days are at a baseball stadium in Fukushima, a region badly affected by the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster.

There were hiccups, including the required chalk pitching circle not being laid until the first game's fourth inning. Organisers said they recognized the oversight quickly and that it did not affect play.

To offer some semblance of fan involvement, concourses at stadiums including the one at Fukushima have been lined with young plants bearing messages from children urging athletes to "go for gold".

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