United States 2, Japan 1, 8 innings

Tuesday, September 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BLACKTOWN, Australia (AP) _ Do you believe in voodoo? The U.S. softball team sure does.

Beaten three times in a row before they ``washed away'' their bad luck, the American women completed a stunning comeback by edging Japan 2-1 Tuesday night in extra innings to win their second straight gold medal.

This time the luck was all on their side when a fly ball by Laura Berg popped out of the Japanese left fielder's glove moments before a downpour drenched the field.

With runners on first and second, and one out, in the eighth inning, Berg looped one over the head of Shiori Koseki, playing shallow in the slick outfield in a light rain.

Koseki moved in a step, then backpedaled desperately, snared the ball in her glove then watched it fall out as she somersaulted.

By the time she hurled a desperation throw over the catcher's head, pinch-runner Jennifer McFalls had scored the game-winner.

``I saw her going back on it, and the ball just went out of her glove,'' Berg said. ``We've been very unlucky in this whole tournament, but luck finally went our way.''

The United States didn't need luck while compiling a 112-game winning streak. But after losing an unprecedented three consecutive games to reach the brink of elimination, the players held a light-hearted ``voodoo cleansing'' in their athletes' village shower to rid themselves of their bad fortunes.

Drenched this time by a rain that grew heavier as the game reached extra innings, Lisa Fernandez struck out eight and allowed just three hits. But she gave up a homer in the fourth inning to Reika Utsugi _ a line drive over Berg, who went back to the chain-link fence in center to jump for the ball, but couldn't reach it.

``I let the ball go. I should have climbed the fence. I should have done something. I should have caught it,'' Berg said. ``I told (Fernandez) I owed her, and we were going to get it back.''

In a sport that frequently is scoreless in extra innings, the early run had the potential to be a game-winner. Utsugi rounded the bases and slapped home plate with her hand before being congratulated by her teammates.

But the Americans tied it in the fifth when catcher Stacey Nuveman, a star in both playoff games Monday, singled to score Michele Smith.

It was Nuveman who walked in the eighth to start the game-winning rally. After she was replaced by McFalls, who also pinch-ran to score the game-winner Monday night, Leah O'Brien Amico popped up a bunt attempt.

After taking two close pitches for called strikes, Dot Richardson lined one down the first base line. The umpire signaled the ball foul quickly, but Richardson was at third base before she realized she hadn't knocked in the winning run.

She also walked, then Berg hit it deep to left. It was ruled an error on Koseki, who was playing shallow to keep the runner from scoring on a single.

``I saw her going back, and I was like, 'Oh,''' Berg said. ``And then it popped out.''

So powerful coming in, with 16 years as the No. 1 team in the world, the Americans' winning streak ended last week with a 2-1 loss to Japan in 11 innings _ a game in which they stranded 20 batters. The United States went on to lose the next two games in extra innings as well.

But while losses showed the team was vulnerable, they also made the tournament more interesting and the Americans more determined. Once it became clear they wouldn't cruise to the title _ as they have in every major international tournament since 1983 _ the other teams seemed energized.

The United States won its last two games of the round-robin to squeak into the medal round. Then the Americans avenged two of their three first-round losses, against China and Australia, to reach the gold medal game.

Then came Japan.

Mariko Masubuchi was perfect through 3 2-3 innings, and she allowed just one hit _ Nuveman's RBI single in the fifth. She was replaced at the start of the sixth by Juri Takayama, who was looking for her sixth win in the team's nine games.

Nuveman, who hit a game-winning homer against China on Monday to clinch at least a bronze, hit a line drive to right field in her first at-bat but was thrown out at first base. In the fifth, she hit it where they couldn't throw her out _ or Smith, either _ lining it to the fence in right-center for the first U.S. hit of the game.

Smith, who had walked, scored easily to tie.

After pitching carefully to Utsugi, and walking her, Fernandez retired the next eight batters to end the game.