Canada falls to Japan 1-0 in extra innings, will play for Olympic bronze in Tokyo

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YOKOHAMA, Japan — Sara Groenewegen's mask hid most of her emotions.

The tears, however, were there.

And in classic Canadian fashion, the nation's ace pitcher apologized.

"Sorry, I'm crying," Groenewegen said following a gut-wrenching, extra-inning loss to Japan that dashed her team's gold-medal hopes in softball at the Tokyo Olympics.

"This is a phenomenal group of women."

Now they'll have to dust themselves off and move past Sunday's disappointment, knowing there's still an opportunity to bring home Canada's first-ever softball medal at the Games.

It's just won't be the colour they wanted.

Japan scored the game's only run in the bottom of the eighth inning to pick up a hard-fought 1-0 victory on the second-last day of round-robin action.

"We knew that it was going to be a one-run game, and we knew that it might come down to late innings," Canadian head coach Mark Smith said. "We had a couple of opportunities to push runs across ourselves and couldn't get it done.

"They finally made good on one."

Veteran reliever Danielle Lawrie took the loss for Canada (2-2), while Miu Goto was lights out with strikeouts against all six batters she faced for Japan (4-0) to register the win.

Groenewegen, who struggled early before getting yanked in Saturday's 7-1 victory over Australia, rebounded by allowing just two hits and a walk with two strikeouts in three innings against Japan.

But Japanese starter Yukiko Ueno was just as good, allowing four hits and striking out four over six innings before giving way to Goto.

"We've all invested heavily in preparation for this event," Smith said. "We came here believing we could go home a gold medallist. All of our focus over the last two years has been on that. They've sacrificed in their lives incredibly to put themselves in this position.

"It's a tough pill, but at the same time, we're too good a team not to go home with a medal."

Eri Yamade singled to centre with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth to score Hitomi Kawabata to seal it for Japan and set up a date with the United States for gold.

"I'm still trying to navigate through that," Canadian infielder Jenn Salling, one of four players left from the 2008 team that finished fourth in Beijing, said when asked how she was processing the disappointment. "It's important that we allow each other the opportunity to just sit in this a little bit. It's tough.

"It's a pretty heart-breaking feeling."

The U.S., which also sits with a record of 4-0, will meet Japan on Monday to close out round-robin play, and again in Tuesday's final.

Ranked third in the world behind those two juggernauts coming into the six-team tournament, Canada has a spot in the bronze-medal match sewn up and will close out its schedule Monday against No. 9 Italy.

The U.S. beat No. 8 Australia (1-3) earlier Sunday by a 2-1 scoreline, while fifth-ranked Mexico (1-3) picked up a 5-0 win over Italy (0-4).

Australia and Mexico will play in Monday's finale for a berth in the bronze-medal game.

The tournament's two highest-scoring teams entering play, Canada and Japan were locked in a pitchers' duel until the seventh at Yokohama Baseball Stadium, which sits about 30 kilometres from the main Olympic venues in this sprawling city on the west side of Tokyo Bay.

Eri Yamada singled off Lawrie — the older sister of former Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie — to begin the bottom of the inning and was sacrificed to second before a fielding error put runners on the corners with one out.

An intentional walk loaded the bases, and with the infield drawn in, Lawrie forced a lineout and a popup to end the threat.

Canada had a chance to take the lead with a runner placed on second in the top of the eighth, but Goto, as she did in the seventh, struck out the side before her team won it in the bottom half.

Lawrie, another veteran of the 2008 squad, surrendered three hits along with three intentional walks in three innings after almost not being allowed to enter the game in the fifth due to confusion over a substitution rule.

"We've given up three runs (in the tournament), two of them against the two teams that are playing the gold-medal game," said Smith, whose club lost 1-0 to the U.S. on Thursday. "I don't think we have to change a whole lot.

"We need a little more timely hitting."

The 34,046-seat venue in Yokohama would have no doubt been packed — despite blistering temperatures that felt like 37 C with the humidity — if not for the pandemic restrictions keeping fans away from most Olympic events in hopes of limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Canada has never reached softball's podium at the Games, but came agonizingly close 13 years ago with that fourth-place finish.

Both softball and baseball were dropped from the Olympic docket in 2012 and 2016. The sports are set to be nixed again for the 2024 Games in Paris, but it's expected they'll return four years later in Los Angeles.

That means that this Canadian group has one shot at a medal — one they don't want to let slip.

"We're gritty," Groenewegen said. "We love each other.

"There's no one else I'd want to play with."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 25, 2021.

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Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had Jenn Salling's name misspelled.

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