OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – After a dominant, gold medal-winning performance at the Athens Olympics and 85-game winning streak, the margin of error for the U.S. softball team seems to be shrinking.

The Americans lost two games in a week at the World Cup of Softball, including a 3-1 decision to Japan in the title game, the U.S. team’s first championship game loss since 1997. The U.S. team struggled to come up with timely hits and its pitchers were anything but invincible. Little mistakes, like a decision to bunt the No. 4 hitter with two runners on base, led to defeat for a team that has become accustomed to winning.

The U.S. routed opponents 51-1 in Athens on their way to its third straight Olympic gold medal. At the World Cup, the margin was down to 22-9. The U.S. had wins of 11-3 and 7-0, but the other three games were close, and the players know that’s going to become more common.

In Monday night’s loss to Japan, Cat Osterman gave up two runs on three singles in the second inning.

The deficit proved to be too much to overcome for the Americans.

Missing from the lineup were slugger Crystl Bustos, who hit a record five home runs in the Athens Games, and one of softball’s biggest star, Lisa Fernandez, who is on maternity leave. Stacey Nuveman, a two-time gold medalist, was in the lineup but recovering from foot surgery.

But even when Nuveman was at the plate with runners on first and second and nobody out, U.S. coach Mike Candrea didn’t call on her to swing her mighty bat, despite having two home runs in six World Cup at-bats. Instead, she was called on to bunt, and the play resulted in a double play as Nuveman hobbled toward first.

That play helped limit the Americans’ fourth-inning rally to one run.

After the game, Candrea said hindsight made it easy to regard the play as a mistake, but he said he’d probably make the same call if given another chance. Nuveman said she would have liked to swing away, but considered it “Softball 101” to bunt the runners into scoring position with no outs.

“I didn’t think about it until I got doubled up, and then I’m going, Gosh, I don’t know about that,”‘ Nuveman said. “But if I put it down on the right side, it’s a non-issue. You can’t coach that way, and you can’t play that way.”

The little mistakes by Osterman and Nuveman turned out to be all Japan needed to beat the Americans.

Yukiko Ueno, who threw the first perfect game in Olympic history last summer, allowed only three hits, including an RBI single to Wilkerson. Mikiko Tanaka had a two-run single off Osterman.

“It’s a game of luck sometimes,” said Osterman, who pitched 14 2-3 scoreless innings in Athens. “They happened to put a couple balls in places where we really couldn’t make a play.”

Osterman, who struck out eight and allowed only two hits in the other five innings she pitched, wasn’t the only U.S. pitcher who had rough moments. Jennie Finch pitched an inning of relief in the seventh and also allowed a run. Alicia Hollowell and Monica Abbott, two newcomers to the U.S. pitching staff, combined to give up five runs on eight hits in 6 2-3 innings in the tournament.

But the pitchers were lacking help at times, too. Three errors helped lead to Hollowell’s three runs, which were all unearned. The two scored by Canada led to a 2-1 defeat of the Americans on Thursday, their first international loss since July 4, 2002, to Japan.

Candrea said a lack of practice time for a team that has seven newcomers on its 18-player roster was partly to blame for the first loss. After the loss in the title game, the U.S. players said more practice time together will help shore up the team before the World Championships in Beijing next October.

“It’s a young team. It’s a new team. Not all of us have played together,” Osterman said. “We know there’s work to do.”


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