When Team USA pitcher Monica Abbott first experienced softball at the Olympic level 10 years ago, she was just a young gun on a roster filled with veteran talent.
Abbott had just finished her collegiate career at Tennessee and was the youngest member on the U.S. roster. She had a strong showing with a 0.29 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 24 innings at the 2008 Olympic Games Beijing.
That was the last time Abbott or the world has seen softball in the Olympics.
With the sport coming back for the 2020 Games in Tokyo, however, Abbott hopes she will have another shot to put on the U.S. jersey in an Olympic Games. That road to Tokyo starts with the 2018 WBSC World Championship currently taking place in Chiba, Japan.
This is the first chance teams have to qualify for the upcoming Olympic Games. The team that finishes first will earn a bid to the Games. If Japan, which already has a spot in 2020 as the host country, wins the tournament, the runner-up will earn the automatic bid to Tokyo.
The top-ranked U.S. team finished the preliminary round a perfect 7-0 and will start the playoff round on Friday Aug. 10.. The 33-year-old Abbott has been a big part of this strong start, a veteran presence in the circle as the only U.S. player on the roster to have Olympic experience.
“It will be interesting,” Abbott said of the team chemistry prior to the tournament. “We will have to meld my experience with the different attitude of a younger generation of players.”
Abbott opened the tournament for Team USA against Mexico. She helped the U.S. pick up a 5-2 win while pitching six shutout innings. Abbott followed that up with a four-inning no-hitter against the Netherlands.
In her three preliminary-round starts, Abbott has been nearly untouchable. She allowed just one run and four hits in 15 innings while striking out 34 batters. She and the rest of the Team USA pitchers have allowed just three runs through seven games.
“It's the best potential pitching staff,” U.S. coach Ken Eriksen told ESPN.com. “Right now, what (Abbott) adds to your team is the ability to throw the ball very well.”
This run by Abbott is more impressive since she hadn’t pitched in an international tournament since 2010. Abbott decided to step away from Team USA since softball was not on the Olympic program in 2012 and 2016.
Abbott did continue to pitch in professional leagues. But when she knew softball was coming back to the Olympics, Abbott said she wanted to be a part of Team USA.
“I had a lot of people asking me to come back,” Abbott told WBSC.org prior to the tournament. “I played in Beijing and I believe in the Olympics, I believe in what they stand for.
“For softball, the Olympics are the highest stage possible. I want to be there to help make a statement.”
While Abbott’s return to international softball has been an early success, there is a long way to go for Team USA. It starts with finishing this year’s World Championship and trying to secure that Olympic bid.
“I think (Abbott’s) main objective is to get this team to the top of the podium, not just in 2018 but 2019 in the Pan Am Games and 2020 in Tokyo,” Eriksen told ESPN.com. “It's a whole different deal when you're dealing with the best of the best.”
From GameChanger and Ryan Williamson.
Want more on USA Softball? Check out Five Things to Watch as Team USA Plays in the Softball World Championship.
Picture Courtesy of USA Softball