BLACKTOWN, Australia (AP) -- The U.S. softball team has now lost as many times in these Olympics as it had since the last ones.
For the third consecutive game, the Americans took a scoreless game into extra innings. And for the third consecutive game, they lost -- this time 2-1 in 13 innings to Australia in an epic struggle that left both winners and losers in tears.
"The nightmare continues," said Lisa Fernandez, who struck out 25 batters while allowing just two hits, the second a two-run homer in the bottom of the 13th after the United States took the lead in the top.
The defending champions had lost only three times since the 1996 Games -- all three times to the Aussies. Although the Americans should still advance to the round-robin, it probably will take five consecutive victories to win the gold medal.
"I don't think I've ever been a part of a bigger challenge than we're in right now," Fernandez said. "If we come back and win the gold, there will be no sweeter win."
The three-game losing streak is a stunning turnaround for a team that had won 112 in a row heading to Sydney and has never lost three straight international games.
The last U.S. loss, before this week, had been to Australia at the 1998 world championships. The Americans' only loss at the '96 Olympics came when Australia's Joanne Brown homered off Fernandez with two outs in the 10th to spoil her perfect game.
"I was sitting in the locker room thinking 'It can't happen again.' But one thing about Atlanta is, we won the gold," Fernandez said. "(You can) take these games and give me the gold medal."
Fernandez retired Brown on a groundout for the second out of the 13th on Thursday before Peta Edebone homered.
"I can now understand the emotions Joey went through in 1996," Edebone said. "It's a feeling that takes over you. When I rounded third and I looked at my teammates at home plate all crying, I burst into tears."
The rivalry was enough to make Thursday's matchup the focus for both teams. But the game became increasingly important when both teams lost to Japan -- and then the Americans lost to China, which plays Australia Friday.
The top four in the eight-team tournament advance after the round-robin. But the medal round is set up so that the third and fourth place teams would have to win an extra game to win the gold medal.
Having lost to the top three teams in the standings, the Americans -- heavy favorites coming in -- are likely headed for fourth. They will have to beat non-contenders New Zealand and Italy in the round robin and then win three straight in the medal round to win the gold.
In other action at the Blacktown Olympic Center, Japan beat Canada 4-3 in 10 innings to remain the only unbeaten team and eliminate Canada from medal contention. China got a no-hitter to beat Cuba 7-0 and improve to 4-1, eliminating Cuba. Italy beat New Zealand 1-0.
At the plate, Fernandez is mired in an 0-for-18 slump. But what's more unusual is a mistake in the pitcher's circle.
Widely considered the best softball pitcher in the world, she had not given up an earned run since 1998.
"It's almost like the Olympics isn't real," she said. "I'm 0-for-whatever at the plate and I was already nervous coming in because of the expectations. I want someone to pinch me and wake me from this nightmare."
A little hitting wouldn't hurt, either.
Tanya Harding struck out 18 and held the Americans scoreless until Christie Ambrosi's RBI single in the top of the 13th, scoring the tie-break runner who is placed at second base to start every inning after the ninth.
Fernandez retired the first two batters in the bottom half of the inning before Edebone hit it over the left-field wall for two runs to send the Australian crowd into a frenzy.
While the Aussies dropped to the ground in exhaustion around home plate, the Americans retreated to the dugout, crying.
"It's like this voodoo that's over us," Ambrosi said. "But it's got to end sometime."
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