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PUNCHLESS SOFTBALL TEAM ENDURES TOUGH 48 HOURS

Michele Smith exited the dugout slowly, wearing a glazed and glassy-eyed mask of disbelief.

She stood still, thinking and unblinking, as another unlikely celebration unfolded on the field early this morning.

Smith could not believe that China pulled out a 2-0 win over the United States and sent the defending Olympic gold medalist to a second straight loss for the first time since 1982. She could not conceive that it happened in one of her strongest outings, a 14-inning gem in which she struck out a record 21 batters and allowed just two hits.

"When the game was over, I was stunned," Smith said. "It's been an incredible last 48 hours."

It's been a 48-hour period of frustration the U.S. would like to forget. The runaway favorite for a second gold medal, continued to display flaws. The Americans, who dropped a 2-1 extra-inning game to Japan on Tuesday night, managed just three hits against China starter Zhang Yanging.

They also left 11 runners on base, bringing their total to 31 in the last two games. Despite the fact that their pitching staff has yet to surrender an earned run in 39 innings, the U.S. finds itself 2-2.

"We've gotten some terrific pitching the last couple of days, but without runs it means absolutely nothing," U.S. head coach Ralph Raymond said.

China made the most of its limited opportunities, with the help of a fortunate bounce and a quirky interruption in the top of the 14th inning. Within seconds of free runner Deng Xiaoling taking her place at second base, the outfield sprinklers began shooting steady streams of water onto the field. The shower lasted less than a minute.

Chinese left fielder Mu Xia dragged a two-out bunt down the third base line to put runners at the corners. Center fielder Zhang Chunfang then ricocheted a liner off Smith's outstretched glove.

As Xiaoling scored the first run, U.S. second baseman Jennifer McFalls' hurried flip throw to first base sailed into foul territory. The error allowed Xia to zoom around the bases for the second run.

Zhang then pitched a perfect bottom portion of the inning, coaxing a weak pop out from Lisa Fernandez to end the longest game in Olympic history. That it came on the heels of an 11-inning loss and 10 hours before an important game with Australia didn't help Team USA's frame of mind. The U.S. desperately needs a win against its chief nemesis to aid its chances of finishing in the top four and advancing into the medal round.

"Right now we are miles away from what U.S. softball is all about," Fernandez said.

And Fernandez, who will pitch against Australia, is mired in an 0-for-17 Olympic slump. First baseman Sheila Douty struck out in all five of her plate appearances.

"Once it comes down to the top four teams, no one will remember what the records were going into the semifinals and into the finals," Fernandez said.

Unless the U.S. fails to make it there.

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