The Americans won again Friday. That's seven straight victories in this Olympics for the U.S. softball team -- and seven straight shutouts. Five of those games ended early because of the Olympic slaughter rule that mandates a mercy killing when one team gets ahead by seven or more runs. The Americans have now outscored their opponents 41-0 over the seven games. Only three opposing players have even made it to third base.
Friday's victory against the Taiwanese puts the United States in the medal round that begins Sunday with a game against Australia and winds up Monday with a battle for the gold.
With their perky ponytails and girlish grins, these women give off the all-American air of sorority sisters or sitcom buddies. In their media guide, they mug for the camera and reveal their favorite colors and candies (pink and Swedish fish for first baseman Tairia Flowers). But don't let any of that fool you. They are a juggernaut, a leviathan, a deadly serious softball machine that won gold medals in 1996 and 2000. They do it all superbly -- hit, field, run, throw, steal bases. And, if truth be told, they can sling sports cliches as well as any team in major league baseball.
"I'm seeing the ball real well," third baseman Crystl Bustos said Friday.
"We just go out every day and play hard," said shortstop Natasha Watley.
"It's not how you start, it's how you finish," said pitcher Lisa Fernandez.
Yesterday's game, like the six others, was played in the Olympic softball stadium, on the coast outside Athens, tucked between the Mediterranean and a line of scraggily dry hills that look like they were imported from Southern California. The place has the feel of an American baseball stadium -- it even has that goofy organ music that toots out a beat to encourage fan clapping:
Doot, doot doot, doot
Doot, doot, doot, doot.
But every once in a while, something makes you realize you're not in Kansas anymore. Like when the scoreboard shows the pitch speed in both miles and kilometers per hour. Or when the between-inning music on the PA is "Zorba the Greek" -- or, even more bizarre, a version of the Four Tops hit "I Can't Help Myself" sung in French.
French? France doesn't even have a softball team in the Olympics.
The stadium hums with the timeless American sounds of a summer ballpark -- swing batter, swing batter -- but, alas, no vendors roam the stands bellowing "Hot dogs!" or "Beer here!" In fact, even the concession stands have precious little food.
"We counted 30 items on the menu, but they only had six," said Bonnie Heggen, a Southern Californian watching the game from a seat behind home plate. "The ones they didn't have sounded better than the ones they did."
Like many of the Americans in the sparsely filled stands, Heggen had a personal connection to the players. In high school, her daughter had played softball against Fernandez, the pitcher and designated hitter who has been the star of the U.S. Olympic team since 1996.
"You could never get past Lisa," Heggen lamented.
Opposing hitters still have that problem.
Fernandez, who mixes wicked speed with a nasty change-up, didn't pitch Friday. Neither did Jennie Finch, the phenom with the 70-mph fastball and the supermodel looks, who has become a favorite of both the media and adolescent males (two categories that are not mutually exclusive).
Pitching instead was Catherine "Cat" Osterman, 21, a long, lank, 6-foot-3 lefty who baffles opponents with an assortment of curveballs and off-speed stuff.
"Cat throws a lot of junk with a lot of movement on the ball," Heggen said, sounding like a color commentator. Then she banged her empty plastic water bottle on the seat in front of her to cheer the team on.
Osterman struck out the first two batters she faced in the first inning and got the third on a weak grounder. But with two outs in the third inning, she got into trouble, walking two batters and making a throwing error on an easy grounder. With the bases loaded, she fanned catcher H.C. Yang, then jumped for joy, pumping her pitching hand in the air.
That was as close as the Taiwanese came to scoring off Osterman, who struck out 10 and gave up only one hit in six innings.
Meanwhile, the Americans scored in the fourth, when Bustos, the Babe Ruth of the team, belted a tremendous solo homer that soared over the center field fence and bounced off a grassy knoll. In the fifth, they manufactured a second run on two infield hits and a sacrifice fly. In the sixth, they added a third, when second baseman Lovieanne "Lovie" Jung slapped a single to center, then right fielder Kelly Kretschman blasted a fly over the center fielder's head and scooted all the way to third.
"Triple!" the electronic scoreboard flashed. Then it flashed it in Greek.
Who knew there was a word for triple in Greek?
At that, coach Mike Candrea sent up a pinch hitter -- catcher Stacey Nuveman -- and in the stands behind home plate, Delaun Petersen started screaming.
"Wooooooo!" she yelled. "Go, Nuvie!"
Petersen, 27, a psychology student at San Francisco State, went to high school with Nuveman and had come to cheer her on. She had an American flag in her hand and another painted on her face. "People at home said I shouldn't bring the flag, but it's been no problem," she said.
"C'mon, Nuvie," she yelled.
Nuvie popped out.
"That's all right, Nuvie," Petersen yelled. "Next time!"
For the top of the seventh -- and final -- inning, Candrea sent in a new pitcher: Lori Harrigan, 33, a three-time Olympian who works as a security supervisor at the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas.
Harrigan threw hard -- 65 mph or 101 kph, according to the scoreboard -- but failed to fool the hitters. The leadoff batter singled to left and the next hitter swatted a hot line drive into the gap in right center. It looked like an RBI double until center fielder Amanda Freed made a running dive, snagged the ball, then leaped up and threw out the base runner for a dramatic double play.
"We're on fire right now!" Bustos said after the game. "You can't beat this team!"
But the rest of the Americans kept cautioning against overconfidence going into Sunday's game against Australia, a traditionally tough team that the Americans beat 10-0 earlier this week.
"They're gonna come back with a vengeance," Fernandez said.
Outside the stadium, the TV cameras were focused on Finch, as usual. And she looked terrific, as usual. She hadn't played, so she wasn't sweaty. Her long blond hair was perfect. So was her blue eye makeup. She was talking about life in the Olympic Village.
"The village is awesome," she said, smiling her dazzling blond smile. "It's like college life all over again. And we have our little softball sorority."