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Jennie Finch had her Ace. And now, the U.S. softball team has its ace back at full strength.
Fourteen months after giving birth to her first child, Finch threw a three-hitter in her longest outing of the year as the United States advanced to the championship game of the World Cup of Softball with a 7-0 victory over Canada on Sunday.
Finch (1-0) struck out eight in six innings and extended her scoreless streak to 19 1-3 innings.
"I haven't felt this good in a long time," said Finch, whose son, Ace, was born in May 2006. "It's been a long year of hard work in the weight room and on the field trying to get back."
Crystl Bustos and Natasha Watley hit two-run home runs to get the American offense started, and Finch pitched the U.S. to its 21st consecutive victory.
Japan (4-1) swept a doubleheader against Venezuela and China later Sunday and will face the Americans (5-0) in the World Cup final for the third straight year. Japan beat the U.S. in the 2005 World Cup final, and the Americans won the rematch in last year's championship game.
Finch had a 2-0 lead before she stepped into the circle, courtesy of Bustos' team-best sixth home run this year in the top of the first. Bustos' shot to left-center field barely cleared outfielders Alison Bradley and Noemie Marin, who had retreated to the wall to make leaping attempts at a catch.
Watley doubled the lead in the fourth inning with her first home run of the year, a line drive to right-center. The U.S. moved into position for a mercy rule win in the sixth, when Tairia Flowers was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded and Vicky Galindo followed with a two-run single to make it 7-0.
Finch struck out the side in the third and fifth innings. Canada (3-2) got its only runner to second base in the third when Kristy Odamura singled to lead off the inning and then stole second with two outs.
"This is the Finch that I'm familiar with," Watley said. "She is, like, bringing it. I've never seen her throw so hard. She's amazing, the things that she can do with pitches."
Finch, the 6-foot-1 right-hander who gained acclaim with a stellar college career and built upon it at the Olympics and by striking out baseball All-Stars on "This Week in Baseball," threw only three innings at last year's World Cup while she was working back after Ace's birth.
"After having babies, your bones expand, your muscles expand and everything, so just kind of letting everything come back to normal," Finch said. "I think time was a big factor, and now just a lot of hard work."
She has since moved back into a featured role on the U.S. staff, alongside left-handed ace Cat Osterman and recent college stars Monica Abbott, Alicia Hollowell and Jennie Ritter. And she's still one of the most recognizable players and a must-have autograph for young fans.
"It's tough for her to be a mother and a wife and a teammate and a pitcher and all those things rolled into one," U.S. pitching coach Chuck D'Arcy said. "It's a very tough role, and she handles it quite well. I say that with all sincerity, because it's very difficult.
"Usually wherever she goes, people want time with her."
For D'Arcy, it's not about whether Finch is back to the dominance of before Ace's birth or when she went 32-0 for Arizona in 2001 as the last NCAA pitcher with an undefeated season.
"Really we're not setting so much a standard as we're trying to get better in all aspects," D'Arcy said. "We tell the pitchers that perfection isn't a destination, it's a journey."
Finch went 3-0 with an 0.56 ERA earlier this year at the Canada Cup and has thrown 11 shutout innings so far at the World Cup.
"I've just tried to be more specific with making each pitch move and making each pitch count," Finch said. "And I think you get that feeling of, 'This could be it.' With the Olympics right around the corner, this is it. This is our time to shine."
Japan 3, China —
Megu Hirose homered and Japan capitalized on four Chinese errors to advance to the championship game.
Hirose hit her second home run of the tournament to lead off the second inning against China starter Zhou Yin (0-2) and give Japan a 2-0 lead. Both of Japan's other runs were unearned as a result of mistakes by China's defense.
In the first inning, Misato Kawano was hit by a pitch and moved to second when Satoko Mabuchi reached as a result of catcher's interference on Japan's Pan Xia with two outs. Emi Naito then singled, and a throwing error by center fielder Zhou Yi allowed Kawano to score.
Japan pushed its lead to 3-0 in the third when Eri Yamada singled and then came all the way around to score Naito's infield single and an error by shortstop Li Chun Xia.
China's only run came on an RBI single by Xin Min Hong off Japan starter Hiroko Sakai (2-0) in the fourth inning.
China (2-3) will face Canada in the third-place game Monday.
Japan 4, Venezuela —
Rie Sato and Ayumi Karino each had RBI singles in a four-run first inning for Japan.
Sachiko Ito had a sacrifice fly to start the scoring, and two runs came in on Sato's bases-loaded single to that was misplayed by right fielder Yusmary Perez. Karino followed with an RBI single to make it 4-0.
Rubilina Rojas drove in the only run for Venezuela (1-4) with a two-out single in the third inning.
Naho Emoto (1-0) was credited with the win after holding Venezuela scoreless over the final four innings.
Only two of the four runs scored off Venezuela starter Mariangee Bogado (0-3) were earned. Venezuela will face the Dominican Republic in the fifth-place game.
China 3, Dominican Republic 0
Wu Di had an RBI single, and China took advantage of three second-inning errors by the Dominican Republic (0-5) to take control.
Xin Min Hong reached on an error by shortstop Maritza Martinez, moved to second on a sacrifice and then scored the decisive run on Di's single to right field. Two more errors allowed Di to score.
The Chinese added an insurance run in the third when Zhou Yi tripled and scored on a wild pitch by Missy Penna (0-3).
Li Qi and Wang Lan (1-0) combined on a four-hitter for China, which committed three errors.
Finch tosses three-hitter, leads U.S. softball team to Cup finals
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