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FOCUS ON-Softball at Tokyo Olympics

(Reuters) – Focus on softball at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics:

THE ABSOLUTE BASICS    * Softball temporarily returns to the Olympics after losing its permanent spot following Beijing in 2008. Six women’s teams are competing, including reigning champions Japan, Australia, Canada, Italy, Mexico and United States.       * They will play each other once over six days, with games lasting seven innings. The two teams with the best records will face off for gold.

* A ‘mercy rule’ will see non-medal games end if one team leads by 15 runs or more after three innings, 10 runs or more after four innings, or seven runs or more after five innings.

    HOW MANY MEDALS?     One gold medal up for grabs.

    WHAT HAPPENED IN BEIJING?

Japan stunned the United States 3-1 on the back of Yukiko Ueno’s brilliant pitching.

    WHAT CAN WE EXPECT IN TOKYO?    Ueno and U.S. veteran pitcher Cat Osterman are again leading their respective teams, who are expected to vie for gold, but Olympics newcomer Mexico are stacked with young talent and some observers rate Australia’s chances.    WHAT’S NEW?     Softball’s opening match between Australia and Japan on July 21, two days before the opening ceremony, will be the first of 339 Olympic events to be contested in Tokyo, replacing the traditional opener soccer, which has its first game later that day.    WHEN IS IT HAPPENING?    July 21 to July 27

    WHERE IS IT HAPPENING?    The first few games will be held at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium, which is near the site of the 2011 nuclear power plant disaster that forced thousands to flee. The competition then moves to Yokohama Stadium, near Tokyo.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

Popular in Asia, the Americas and Oceania, softball debuted at the Olympics in 1996 but was cut after Beijing in 2008, with many blaming Europe’s influence over organisers as the main reason for it being axed. Players contend that consistent Olympics exposure would boost global interest and turn domestic leagues into big moneymakers like baseball’s.

    WELL FANCY THAT

Teams have been going out of their way to practice on artificial turf, including on lacrosse, baseball and American football fields. The Olympics stadiums, for the first time, do not have the usual dirt and grass and players are preparing for faster grounders, looser grips on balls, extreme heat and, worst of all, bad skin burns from slides.

“You just got to make sure you don’t get an annoying scrape that sometimes sticks to the sheets when you try to sleep,” said Canadian catcher Kaleigh Rafter.

(Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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