By Paresh Dave
YOKOHAMA, Japan (Reuters) -Canada, Japan and United States on Saturday emerged as the softball gold medal contenders at Tokyo 2020 after wins that knocked Italy, Mexico and in all probability Australia out of contention in the six-team tournament.
Mexico and Australia stumbled to losses with fielding errors and bungled opportunities. The United States defeated Mexico 2-0 on a bobbled ball and Canada took advantage of two throwing errors to hammer Australia 7-1.
Japan cruised to a 5-0 win over Italy, who kept their prime-time match tied through nearly four of the seven innings as starter Alexia Lacatena, an 18-year-old weeks out of high school in New Jersey, forced Japanese hitters to swing late at fastballs down the middle and chase change-ups high and away.
But Japan's Yamamato Yu swung Lacatena's momentum with a no-doubt two-run homer in the fourth, and Yamato Fujita later homered for the third time in the tournament to add the other three runs.
Earlier, U.S. pitcher Cat Osterman largely controlled Mexico's bats as "Vamos, vamos!" chants pierced through an empty stadium, matched by cries of "Let's go, let's go!" from her team mates.
The 1.88-m Houston native, wearing long sleeves and no visor in 32 degree Celsius heat, took shade by a fan half her height between six innings of striking past Mexican Americans who had failed to make the U.S squad.
"If she's throwing butterflies like that, trying to catch them in the wind as a hitter, that's pretty tough," U.S. coach Ken Eriksen said.
With two games each to go, pre-tournament favourites Japan and the United States are 3-0, Canada 2-1, Australia 1-2 and both Italy and Mexico 0-3.
Japan have one softball gold and the United States three.
Canada, who have never won a softball medal, face Japan on Sunday with a chance to squeeze themselves in between the two favourites before Monday's final round-robin games.
Saturday's games were held at a cleaned-up 43-year-old downtown stadium. But with barely two dozen people sitting in an ocean of 34,000 bright-to-dark blue seats due to COVID-19 restrictions, the only lines occurred when the players stood for their national anthems.
(Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Karishma Singh and John Stonestreet)