ATHENS, Greece – Seven straight Olympic shutouts, and 77 victories in a row. The U.S. softball team is rolling like no team in history.
Cat Osterman struck out 10 in six innings, Crystl Bustos (search) homered and the United States completed a perfect run through the preliminary round with a 3-0 win over Taiwan on Friday, setting up a U.S.-Australia showdown in the semifinals.
On another blistering day, the U.S. (7-0) stayed as hot as the Athenian sunshine.
The Americans are dominating softball (search) in a way never seen before. Through seven games, they've outscored the opposition 41-0, allowed just 11 hits, permitted three runners to reach third and are poised to completely rewrite the Olympic record book.
"We want to dominate," said center fielder Amanda Freed.
Dominant may not adequately describe what the U.S. has done to the field over the past week.
However, now is when things get interesting.
Having cruised through round-robin play unscathed, the United States moves into Sunday's semifinals for a rematch with Australia, the only team to beat the Americans twice in the Olympics (search).
And the pitcher who got both of those wins — Tanya Harding — is likely to start for the Aussies in the semifinals.
"I'm kind of thinking she might be on the mound," said U.S. coach Mike Candrea (search), who will go with either Jennie Finch or Lisa Fernandez.
Fernandez will gladly take the ball.
"I want to start everyday," she said.
Finch, too, would love to be the one in the circle.
"I hope I do start," she said, "but if I don't I'll support whoever is."
Right now, it may not matter who pitches. The United States didn't show many flaws in the opening round, but the tourney starts anew this weekend.
The Americans, who have already clinched at least a bronze medal, beat Australia 10-0 in a game shortened to five innings by the "mercy rule" earlier in the week. Things probably won't be so easy next time.
"Australia couldn't care less what we've done in the last seven games," Fernandez said. "It's a clean slate."
Give Taiwan (2-5) credit. The Taiwanese nearly scored, got three hits — two in the seventh off three-time Olympian Lori Harrigan — and became just the third team to go the seven-inning distance with the Americans.
Taiwan loaded the bases in the third, but Osterman got out of the jam with a strikeout. In the seventh, Freed made a diving catch in the gap, jumped up and doubled the runner off first base.
Bustos, the U.S. team's big bopper, provided a 1-0 lead in the fourth with a towering shot to center that outfielder Chen Feng Yin chased before watching it clear the wall and plop onto the grassy embankment.
It was the Americans' fifth homer. Bustos has three. So does Australia, the only other team in the field to connect.
Jessica Mendoza's sacrifice fly in the fifth made it 2-0, and Kelly Kretschman hit an RBI triple in the sixth as the U.S. went about business as usual since it arrived in Greece determined to win a third straight gold medal.
At 21, Osterman is the youngest member of the U.S. squad. But she pitches like she's been around for decades. Unlike Jennie Finch, who relies primarily on a searing fastball to over power hitters, Osterman works the corners, tantalizing batters with an assortment of breaking pitches.
Coming out of the Texas standout's hand, the yellow sphere dips, drops, dances — and dazzles.
In practice, she makes her teammates look silly.
"She's amazing," Bustos said. "I almost feel sorry for teams. I'd hate to have to face any of our pitchers."
Osterman, who pitched a one-hitter with 11 strikeouts against Japan earlier this week, didn't have her best stuff. She walked three in the first three innings, including two with two outs in the third when she also made her worst delivery — an overthrow of first after fielding a grounder that helped Taiwan load the bases.
But Osterman kept the team's scoreless streak intact by striking out Wang Ya Fen for the final out. After Wang swung through her pitch, the 6-foot-3 Osterman leapt in the air, punched her fist into the pocket of her glove and slapped her catcher Jenny Topping's hand as she left the field.