U.S. women´s softball team forging its identity ahead of return to Olympics

LIMA, Peru -- One couldn't be blamed for thinking U.S. women's softball is trying to rebuild its identity at the 2019 Pan American Games, 11 years after the squad fell short of gold, the last year the sport formed part of an Olympic lineup.

"As tradition, I feel like USA softball tries to put all the pieces together and try to be a whole team and not just dominant in one place," said Cat Osterman, one of the team's two seasoned aces.

Resting a few of its big bats, Team USA was tested in Thursday's preliminary-round finale against Peru. Starter Keilani Ricketts fought her way out of trouble often against a winless but determined host team before delivering the walk-off, run-rule RBI in a 7-0 six-inning win.

Pitching and hitting is coming together, all in one package -- even if the U.S. will have to put in extra work Saturday to win gold after losing its semifinal game to Canada 3-2. The balance has otherwise served the U.S. well in Lima, where it is 5-1. It has outscored opposition 39-4, has a .331 batting average and has belted 10 home runs. The pitching staff has an ERA of 0.74 with 66 strikeouts in 38 innings.

Osterman took the loss Friday against Canada, giving up three runs on six hits in 3 1/3 innings. The Americans will have to beat Puerto Rico on Saturday to earn a rematch with Canada for the gold later in the day. Regardless, it is in this pitching staff that Team USA hopes to rediscover its form and find, in Osterman and Abbott, the link from the Olympic glory years to Tokyo Olympics, where women's softball returns for the first time since 2008.

U.S. coach Ken Eriksen discussed his team's strength before the semifinal round.

"I think the strength is in the [pitching] circle, and if we can support them defensively and scratch out runs here and there we'll be OK," said Eriksen, who was on the gold-medal 2004 staff in Athens. "We're not doing anything different than [what] those teams were doing successfully. And now it's trying to teach the young guys how to play a winning-type softball, how USA softball's always done it. So they've done a great job."

The "young guys" include 22-year-old Rachel Garcia, the 2019 Women's College World Series' Most Outstanding Player who led UCLA to the title this summer. She's hitting .429 while also recording 10 strikeouts in 8 1/3 innings when she's taken the circle in Lima. There is also Alabama product Haylie McCleney, 25, in the outfield and former Washington infielder Ali Aguilar, 23, who are cleaning up at the plate with respective batting averages of .765 and .438 and 12 collective RBIs.

As Eriksen pointed out, however, the strength remains in the circle. Strikeout specialists Abbott and Osterman, who were once traded for each other in the U.S. pro ranks, have between them fanned 45 in 23 1/3 innings in Lima, while allowing just one run. Osterman, 36, won gold in 2004 and was prompted to return to the national team for another shot at the gold that eluded her in 2008's silver-medal finish. Abbott, who turned 34 at the start of the Pan Am Games, rewrote the NCAA record books during her time pitching at Tennessee, leaving as the leader in strikeouts, wins and shutouts, among other categories, before joining Osterman on the 2008 Olympic team.

They will be in the mix when the 15-player roster is announced in October, as Eriksen tries to find the right formula -- of which experience is sure to be an ingredient.

"Ultimately, we're very different types of pitchers," Abbott said about her and Osterman. "We support each other a lot better as we've both aged and we're really trying to compete as a team, as a pitching staff and also just kind of keep the focus. The team is the focus, winning is the focus, and keep the goals in line."

Osterman brings along a new perspective from the dugout as an assistant coach at Texas State. She has experienced more ups and downs than she would like in her return to the diamond but compensates with the knowledge gained on the bench.

"I think there were times when I was pitching in the past that my brain didn't necessarily work in the same way as when I'm like, talking to my pitchers," Osterman said. "'Avoid this count,' or 'We want to win this count.' I think as a player in the past, I just worried one pitch at a time, but now I find myself in the counts that I'm telling my kids to win and so it's like, 'OK, you know what? This is an important count. I need to make sure i win this count.'"

The U.S. already booked a spot last year for the 2020 Olympics after advancing to the gold-medal game at the world championships against automatic qualifier and host Japan. It'll therefore be a year of touring, training camps and learning for a team that has started the summer right with an International Cup crown last month in Georgia to go with their romp through Peru.

Still, 12 years between Olympics can include a lot of change.

"I think the biggest difference right now is how much the game of softball has changed from 2008 to 2020. I think technology alone, information, and just overall competitiveness across the world right now is so much better than it was in 2008," Abbott said. "You have to go out and compete every pitch, and I think this team has slowly been able to put that together and continually fight for the moment, fight for the moment to be able to compete in and not taking a pitch off."

Ever the coach, Osterman said her plan for the next year would be whatever Eriksen says the plan will be. In the meantime, she and Abbott will try to shine a light for their teammates as best they can.

"Both of us have experience of the Olympic tour that we do throughout the United States beforehand, and at the same time we both have the experience of actually being in Olympic games, because no matter how many international events you're in, the Olympics are the pinnacle," Osterman said. "So your nerves and your adrenaline and your emotions are a little bit different. We both have that experience to share when the time is right. And so I think that's the biggest thing we bring, is to help these athletes understand what the next 10 to 12 months is going to look like once the team is named."