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US, Japan set for gold-medal clash in softball

Team USA allowed its first run of the tournament, but secured a 2-1 victory over Australia. Japan shut out Canada to render Monday's group play game against the Americans a dress rehearsal for the Tuesday's final.

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United States players swarm Amanda Chidester after her walk-off single secured a win over Australia in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics at Yokohama Baseball Stadium in Yokohama, Japan on July 25, 2021. Jorge Silva / Reuters

YOKOHAMA, Japan — Hosts Japan beat Canada 1-0 in an extra-inning thriller on a sunbaked turf on Sunday to set up a highly-anticipated Olympic softball final with the United States.

Unbeaten sides United States and Japan will first square off on Monday in what will essentially be a dress rehearsal for Tuesday's finale, with the loser batting first in the medal game.

U.S. coach Ken Eriksen said whether his team swing first did not matter because their fearsome pitchers would place them in a position to win either way.

Spots in the bronze medal game remain up for grabs.

In an earlier nail-biter on Sunday, United States swarmed their hero Amanda Chidester after her extra-inning single beat Australia 2-1.

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Tarni Stepto, Australia's youngest player at 21, held U.S. batters to five hits over seven and 1/3 innings. Throwing nearly as fast as flamethrower and U.S. counterpart Monica Abbott, Stepto earned outs in key spots to keep the United States off the scoreboard until Chidester's winning hit.

The United States, wearing red from hair ribbons down through pants, raced to Chidester at midfield to celebrate the walk-off victory.

"It was a lot of tense moments, but you live for these moments," Abbott said, raising her voice with excitement. "We live to be there and be able to step up for our team."

Abbott, 35, who has competed professionally since Stepto was starting the sport as a six-year-old, was impressive as usual. Abbott struck out 13 batters, with pitches whipping up like the 10 flags in center field behind her. Strikeouts twice ended bases-loaded innings.

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Monica Abbott of the United States delivers a pitch against Australia in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics at Yokohama Baseball Stadium in Yokohama, Japan on July 25, 2021. Jorge Silva / Reuters

Australians pacing the sidelines with clenched hands had felt relief and a win around the corner in the first half of the extra inning when Abbott walked in a run by nearly scraping Jade Wall's shoulder with a 70 mph rise ball. It was the first run United States have allowed in the tournament.

Later Sunday, Japan's ace Yukiko Ueno limited Canada to four hits, and veteran Eri Yamada ended the game with one out in the extra frame by slapping a single to center field to bring home the lone run.

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Canada briefly walked off the field in the fifth inning as umpires debated whether their pitcher Danielle Lawrie, who came out of a seven-year retirement to chase gold, could enter the game under "flex player" rules.

They eventually said she could, and she delivered three shutout innings until Yamada's hit left the Canadian speechless and several of her team mates covering tearful faces.

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