Former UF standout Kelsey Stewart's walk-off HR lifts US over Japan
YOKOHAMA, Japan — Kelsey Stewart has a knack for walk-off hits in Japan.
Stewart, out of the University of Florida, hit a game-ending home run leading off the seventh inning, and the United States rallied late to beat Japan 2-1 Monday and win the Olympic softball group stage — and with it the right to bat last in the gold medal game.
“It's like you dream about when you're a little kid, about hitting a home run at the Olympics, let alone a walk-off,” Stewart said.
In August 2018, Stewart's single capped a three-run 10th inning off Japan ace Yukiko Ueno that gave the U.S. a 7-6 win at the Women’s Softball World Championship in Chiba, earning the Olympic berth.
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She had been 1 for 12 with no RBIs at the Olympics before she drove the 98th pitch from Yamato Fujita (0-1) just over the glove of leaping right fielder Yuka Ichiguchi for the first U.S. home run of the tournament.
“She was starting to wear down because she had so many pitches on her arm,” Stewart said.
American players ran onto the field to celebrate their second straight walk-off win.
“I knew she was strong,” Fujita said through an interpreter, remembering Stewart from 2018. “I think the ball was too easy for her.”
Trying to bounce back from their 3-1 loss to Japan in the 2008 gold medal game, the Americans finished the group stage 5-0 while Japan dropped to 4-1.
Stewart's first-inning error had led to Japan's run. She bobbled Saku Yamazaki’s leadoff grounder to third, and following a sacrifice and Hitomii Kawabata’s single, Yamazaki scored on Aubree Munro’s passed ball.
Japan rested Yukiko Ueno, the 39-year-old who beat the U.S. in the 2008 gold medal game started by Cat Osterman, and Miu Goto. Fujita and catcher Yukiyo Mine lost track of the outs, starting to run off the field after Michelle Moultrie struck out for the second out of the third.
Fujita, a 30-year-old right-hander who had pitched just once before in the tournament, didn't allow a hit until Haylie McCleney (an Olympic-best 9 for 14) singled to left leading off the sixth.
Janie Reed, whose husband, Jake, was claimed by Tampa Bay off waivers from the Los Angeles Dodgers earlier in the day, reached on an infield hit with a bouncer to shortstop for just her second hit in 13 at-bats, and Valerie Arioto hit a two-out RBI single.
Ally Carda, a 28-year-old right-hander, allowed an unearned run and four hits over 5 1/3 innings in her Olympic mound debut, striking out nine and walking none.
Monica Abbott and Osterman had combined to throw all 29 innings in the first four games.
“Ally Carda has had tremendous success against them,” U.S. coach Ken Eriksen said of Japan. “Ally was scheduled for this game as soon as the Olympic team was named, because we knew the schedule. ... If we had to win this game to get into the gold medal game, Ally Carda was still going to get the ball.”
Osterman, a 38-year-old lefty, faced two lefties in the sixth and struck out both.
Abbott (3-0) pitched a perfect seventh, adding to two complete game wins and two saves.
“It was a great opportunity for us to be able to experience all three pitchers today before the gold medal game tomorrow,” Japan coach Reika Utsugi said through an interpreter.
A 6-foot-3 lanky left-hander, Abbott is likely to start the gold medal game scheduled for Tuesday, a day before her 36th birthday. Rain is in the forecast.
“I wouldn't doubt that you might see four pitchers tomorrow,” Eriksen said.