Decades in the Making, Here's Why USA-Japan Is the Biggest Rivalry in Softball
USA Softball is squaring off in another epic matchup against Japan, this time in the gold medal game at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo. If you caught round one on Monday (Sunday night in the US), you already know that games between these two softball powerhouses do not disappoint. To recap: Japan scored in the first inning and threatened to add on throughout the game. The US held them at bay and tied it up in the sixth inning to break up a no-hitter. Then, the US ended the game on a walk-off home run in the seventh, handing Japan its first loss of the tournament and giving the US a perfect 5-0 record.
Now that the opening stage of the round-robin Olympic tournament is over, the two teams with the best records (the US and Japan) will play each other again in the gold medal game. It's set to be an intense game, and not just because there's a gold medal on the line. The two countries produce world-class softball players — the US through NCAA competition, Japan through a top-tier professional league — and when they clash head-to-head, it produces what former US outfielder Jessica Mendoza recently called "the biggest rivalry in the sport," one that stretches back decades. Keep reading to see why.
USA Softball Lost to Japan in the 2000 Olympics, Then Came Back to Win Gold
The US had never lost to Japan in the Olympics until 2000, when they fell 2-1 in a game that went deep into extra innings. The US entered the competition as the gold medal favorite, but that loss sent the team into its first three-game losing streak in international competition. The US had to fight its way back to the top, ultimately securing the gold medal in another close-fought, 2-1 game against — you guessed it — Japan.
USA Softball Lost the Gold Medal Game to Japan in the 2008 Olympics
Over the next eight years, the US went 77-4 in international competition and won another Olympic gold medal. It was about as dominant a performance as the team could ask for, but in a foreshadowing of things to come, three of those four losses came at the hands of Japan.
In the 2008 Olympics, the US looked unbeatable once again, outscoring opponents 57-2 through the first eight games. The US had beaten Japan twice in pool play before the teams met again in the gold medal game. Then, with ace Cat Osterman on the mound for the Americans, Japan shocked the US by scoring three runs while holding the high-powered American offense at bay with a dominant pitching performance by Yukiko Ueno. Japan won the game, handing the US its first Olympic loss in eight years and its first silver medal. To make matters worse for the US, the International Olympic Committee had already announced that 2008 would be the last Olympics to feature softball. The Americans would not have an opportunity to avenge the loss.
Japan Beat the US — Twice — in the 2014 World Championships
The US and Japan continued to be each other's biggest competition following the 2008 Olympics. Japan beat the US nine times in six years leading into the 2014 World Championships, where the US lost to Japan twice, including during the gold medal game. It was the second consecutive World Championship that Japan had won, beating the US in 2012 and 2014 and continuing to out-perform the Americans on the biggest stage.
USA Softball and Japan Play in the Gold Medal Game in the 2021 Olympics
With softball back in the Olympics in 2021, we'll finally get to see the next chapter in this storied rivalry. For Japan, it's a chance to defend the hard-won gold from 13 years ago; for the US, a long-sought opportunity for redemption. The game will be even more intense for two American players, Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman, who are the only players still active from that 2008 team: Osterman started the 2008 gold medal game that the US lost, and Abbott plays professionally in Japan alongside many of the players she'll be facing.
The US beat Japan in walk-off fashion on Monday, but the game was tight and you can expect both teams to come out with extra energy and determination in the gold medal game. If we know anything about these two rivals, it's that their matchups never disappoint.