FOR 13 YEARS, Vicky Piatt carried a distinction: She was the last player to get a hit in an Olympic softball game. And one thing made it all the more special; it came off Japanese legend Yukiko Ueno in the gold-medal game at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Then known as Vicky Galindo, the U.S. pinch-hitter is happy to relive the moment when she drove a ball back up the middle. Over the past week, she’s been asked about it a lot.
“I was glad that I got the chance to face her,” Piatt said on Saturday. “It’s the challenge that makes it exciting. It was my chance to go, ‘I’m going to get a hit. Watch me.'”
Piatt, however, would make it no farther than first base. Ueno got the next three U.S. batters, and Japan became the first country other than the United States to win a gold medal in softball at the Olympics with a 3-1 victory.
With Ueno in the circle, the upset was no fluke. Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott have become synonymous with softball success in America. But without Ueno, the best rivalry in international softball would never have materialized and the record books would look a whole lot different.
On Tuesday (7 a.m. ET) the three best pitchers of their generation will share the field once again with an Olympic gold medal on the line. Ueno has history on her side.
Consider, at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Ueno pitched the first — and still only — seven-inning perfect game in Olympic history. At those same Games, she set a mark that is unlikely to ever be broken: Ueno pitched 15 1/3 consecutive innings without giving up a hit. Japan went on to claim its first Olympic softball medal with a bronze.
In the semifinals at the 2008 Olympics, Ueno held the United States scoreless for eight innings before faltering in the ninth. Later that same day, she secured a rematch with the U.S. by going 12 innings in a 4-3 win over Australia. She wound up throwing 413 pitches over 28 innings in two days, a feat that has lost no luster with the passage of time. In the gold-medal game, she gave up just five hits and the single run and stared down Osterman and Abbott, who combined to give up five hits and three runs.
“This isn’t how it was supposed to end,” Osterman said that day.
Softball had already been removed from the program for the 2012 London Olympics, so the defeat, which ended a 22-game Olympic winning streak for Team USA, was especially bitter for the U.S. players.
“That’s what made it so devastating,” Piatt said. “We weren’t going to get a chance to win it back.”
Abbott, Osterman, Piatt and a handful of other American players stuck around for the 2010 world championships, where they defeated Japan in the gold-medal game. But because Ueno did not play, the desire for revenge was not fully realized.
“You’re still getting some redemption back,” Osterman said. “For us as players, that’s what we wanted. We didn’t diminish it because she wasn’t there.”
Ueno returned to the world championships in 2012, held in Canada, but the U.S. roster had turned over to the next generation. Osterman and Abbott had moved on, but Ueno went 10 innings in Japan’s 2-1 win over the United States in the gold-medal game.
Said U.S. coach Ken Eriksen: “She has brute force, and she’s not afraid to use it. … Right now, Ueno, you definitely have to give the nod to as being the No. 1 pitcher and power pitcher in the world.”
Ueno only strengthened Eriksen’s case at the next major international competition, beating the United States 4-1 at the 2014 world championships in the Netherlands.
“I think she gave everybody the idea that, you know what, [the Americans] are human beings and we can be beat,” Karen Johns, an assistant coach for Team USA in 2008, said of Ueno in 2014. “I think that’s what she was able to provide for the world, to say this can be done. It takes a whole lot of work and a whole lot of preparation to beat the best team in the world, but it can be done.”
With Abbott back in the fold at the 2018 world championships in Chiba, Japan, the United States finally got some measure of revenge against Ueno. A Kelsey Stewart single off Ueno in the 10th inning gave the United States a 7-6 win.
The United States clinched a spot at the Tokyo Olympics at those world championships, a development that would draw Osterman, citing “unfinished business,” out of retirement.
On Tuesday, on Ueno’s home soil, another chapter in the sport’s greatest rivalry will unfold. The three pitchers with a long and tangled history will reconvene with a gold medal going to the winner. It will likely be the last time: Ueno turned 39 last week, Osterman is 38 and Abbott turns 36 on Wednesday.
When asked to scout the three most celebrated pitchers at the Games, Piatt said Osterman has the best movement, Abbott has the most velocity, and Ueno is a blend of both. All three, she said, are world-class competitors.
All three have been spectacular in Tokyo. The American lefties have yet to give up an earned run. Abbott is 3-0 with 29 strikeouts over 18 innings. Osterman is 2-0 with 15 strikeouts over 12 2/3 innings. Ueno has gone 16 1/3 and given up three earned runs with 21 strikeouts.
The United States (5-0) and Japan (4-1) met on Sunday night in the final game of the round-robin round and, befitting of the best rivalry in the sport, the United States won 2-1 with a Stewart walk-off home run in the seventh. Abbott and Osterman combined to pitch 1 2/3 innings of relief. Ueno never entered the game. Both teams already had clinched their spots in the gold-medal game, but the U.S. win meant they would be the home team on Tuesday and get to bat last.
Haylie McCleney has been the hottest hitter at the tournament, batting .643 and scoring four of the United States’ nine runs. For Japan, Yamato Fujita has hit three home runs, the most of any player in Tokyo.
It is the pitchers, though, who will take center stage.
Ueno got the last softball win of the Olympics in 2008. She got the first win in 2021. Now she’s once again hoping to get the last. Softball won’t be part of the Paris Olympics in 2024, but it is expected to squeeze back in for the Games in Los Angeles in 2028 and in Brisbane in 2032.
“I want to leave everything out here,” Ueno said. “So that I can end the Games with no regrets.”