SOFTBALL After losing wife, coach guides his team to 7-0 win



Mike Candrea guided the Americans past Italy in an abbreviated opener.
ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- A calm came over U.S. softball coach Mike Candrea as he stepped into the dugout for his first Olympic game. He knew he'd done the right thing by coming.
His wife was gone, but at least this part of his life was still whole.
"I was back in my element," he said. "It felt really, really good to be able to focus on one thing."
Less than one month after his wife's death from a brain aneurysm, Candrea guided the U.S. softball team to a 7-0 victory over Italy on Saturday in a shortened opener of the eight-team tournament.
Jennie Finch didn't allow a hit in three innings, Natasha Watley went 4-for-4 with two RBIs, and the Americans began their run toward a third straight gold medal with an impressive display of speed and power.
The mercy rule
Watley's two-run double capped a three-run fifth inning that put the United States up by seven runs, invoking the mercy rule that ended the game.
Candrea almost wished it hadn't.
Being back on the field in the heat of a game provided him with a much needed diversion. It was small things -- filling out the lineup card, flashing signals to hitters and waving runners around third -- that gave him temporary peace.
"It feels great," he said. "This morning I was anxious to get up and get to the ball park. It seems like we've been practicing for two years. The last two weeks have just gone real slow for me."
Jessica Mendoza had two RBIs, and three-time Olympian Lisa Fernandez drove in another run as the U.S. team extended its winning streak to 71 since July 2003. The Americans are now 8-0 against Italy since 1974.
Good job
Finch, who has received more pre-Olympic publicity than her teammates because of her stunning looks, struck out five of the 10 batters she faced before being pulled by Candrea.
By then the Americans led 4-0, and the lead allowed Finch to get some rest on a draining 95-degree afternoon. Candrea also was able to get some work for pitchers Lori Harrigan and Cat Osterman, who shut out Italy over the final two innings.
Today, the Americans will play Australia, considered the biggest obstacle to the United States winning another gold.
After several emotional weeks, it was also important for the U.S. team to lift Candrea.
Memorial stickers
As a tribute to Sue Candrea, who passed away while traveling with them, the Americans have "SC" stickers on their batting helmets. Some players are wearing wristbands with her initials.
Because she played for Candrea at Arizona, Finch is closer to her coach than many of her teammates. She often credits him with making her a better player, better pitcher and better person.
Although she may not be able to understand his pain, Finch knows softball can help ease it for a few hours.
"We wanted coach out there," she said. "We all know Sue would have wanted him in that third-base box coaching us."
Australia defeated Japan 4-2 as Tanya Harding pitched 61/3 innings of no-hit relief, and Natalie Titcume hit a two-run homer.
Lauren Bay pitched a four-hit shutout and Jackie Lance hit a two-run double to lead Canada over Taiwan, 2-0. Bay's brother is an outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Also, China defeated Greece 5-0.

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