Beijing, China (Sports Network) - Rei Nishiyama looped an RBI single into right-center field to lift Japan to a 4-3 victory over Australia in 12 innings on Wednesday, ending a thrilling bronze medal softball game at the Beijing Olympics.
With the win, Japan earned the right to play the United States -- again -- in the gold medal game.
The U.S. struggled to solve Japanese starter Yukiko Ueno in a semifinal game earlier Wednesday, finally getting to her for four runs in the ninth inning on the way to a 4-1 win.
Caitlin Lowe singled home the game's first run in the second extra inning, and a three-run homer from Crystl Bustos turned a tense game into a walk for the Americans, who were in danger of losing at the Olympic level for the first time in eight years.
The U.S. extended its Olympic winning streak to 22 games dating back to a loss at the 2000 Sydney Games. But it was the closest this three-time gold medal- winning team came close to a defeat at Beijing's Fengtai Field.
Even after Bustos' homer made it 4-0, Japan came back with a run in the bottom of the ninth on pinch hitter Sachiko Ito's RBI single off starter Monica Abbott.
It was the first earned run allowed by the Americans' three-pitcher rotation in Beijing, and it knocked Abbott from the game. Cat Osterman set down three straight Japanese batters to close out the win.
It was a relief for the U.S. women, moving them straight to Thursday's gold medal game without having to play again on Wednesday.
"With our team, it always comes down to timely hits," said U.S. catcher Stacey Nuvemen. "We were often in scoring position, but we forgot that we don't need to swing big because Yukiko (Ueno) provides the power."
Japan was forced to play in the bronze medal game to earn another shot at the Americans. Its opponent was a scrappy Australian team fresh off a 5-3 victory over Canada.
Ueno took the mound again for the Japanese, giving up a run in the first inning only to settle down after that. Japan had a 2-1 lead going into Australia's at-bat in the top of the seventh inning -- but couldn't hold it, even after Ueno set down the first two hitters.
Australia's Kerry Wyborn blasted a home run over the right field fence with two outs to tie the game at 2-2.
In the bottom of the inning, Japan's Masumi Mishina reached on an error and tried to score from first base on a double by Motoko Fujimoto. But she was thrown out by several feet at the plate.
The teams traded runs in the 11th inning -- both on bloop singles to the outfield -- and the game remained tied headed to the 12th.
Pitching her 21st inning of the day, Ueno surrendered a walk to put runners on first and second base (a free runner starts at second base to begin every extra inning) but she escaped trouble by getting groundouts to end the inning.
Nishiyama's game-winning single came with the bases loaded, moving Japan to the gold medal game and handing Australia the bronze.
"It was a nail-biter that could have gone either way," said Australia's Belinda Wright.
That it went Japan's way means the U.S. will face not only the second-best team at the Olympics, but the only team that has given the Americans a run for their money over two weeks.
And with softball already eliminated as a sport for the 2012 London Games, Thursday's loser will have to wait until at least 2016 for another chance to win gold.
08/20 09:28:54 ET