OKLAHOMA CITY — In the absence of the U.S. softball team's familiar Olympic stars, Valerie Arioto is showing she's ready to perform in crunch time.
Arioto doubled in the tiebreaking run and followed it with a grand slam to power the United States to an 8-4 victory against rival Japan on Saturday night at the World Cup of Softball.
"She's got such a relaxed attitude right now that she's on time getting into position and she's seeing the ball big," first-year coach Ken Eriksen said.
The Americans (3-1) bounced back from a 4-3 loss to Canada earlier in the day to secure a crucial win for their hopes of reaching Monday night's championship game and pursuing a fifth-straight World Cup title.
"They showed a lot of guts and guile," first-year coach Ken Eriksen said.
Arioto, who also drove in the tiebreaking runs in America's 5-2 win against Australia a night earlier, came up with two more huge two-out hits against the 2008 gold medalists.
She smashed a ground rule double to left field to give the U.S. a 3-2 lead in the fifth, then broke it open the next inning with a drive that didn't need a bounce to clear the left-field fence.
"She's a heck of a player, isn't she?" Eriksen said.
The Americans had stranded runners at third in three of the first five innings, leaving the bases loaded in the third and the fifth, before Arioto delivered to make it 8-2.
"That's a good thing. We're getting runners on, so that's the least of our problems," said Arioto, who missed California's 2011 season with an injury. "We've just got to get those clutch hits.
"Tonight, we had a lot of energy and a lot of fun, so it was a good game for us."
Kazuki Watanabe had a two-run single in the sixth to cut the deficit to four before Jordan Taylor came on to close the game with four straight strikeouts.
The U.S. would meet Canada in the championship game Monday night if both teams win Sunday. The Americans face Great Britain (1-2) while the Canadians (3-1) play Australia (2-2).
"How we respond tomorrow is how I know how we are as a team at evolving," Eriksen said. "If we come out flat tomorrow, then we don't really get it yet. If we come out tomorrow and play high-energy ball then we're starting to mature and evolve in the Team USA mold."
Wins haven't been as easy these days for an American team that once dominated the sport, most notably while outscoring opponents 51-1 during the 2004 Athens Olympics to win a third straight gold medal. That run came amid a three-year stretch when the U.S. won 85 straight games against international competition.
Japan (2-1) closed the gap in the years that followed, winning the 2005 World Cup and then upsetting the U.S. in the gold medal game in Beijing in 2008 — the last Olympic softball game until at least 2020.
And now, the stars from that era aren't with the team. Several retired after the Beijing Games in 2008, Jennie Finch walked away after last year's World Cup and Jessica Mendoza and Cat Osterman are among the Olympic veterans who opted not to play for the national team this year.
The Japanese won three out of four against the U.S. this month at the Canada Cup, including a 7-0 shutout in the championship game. This was their first meeting since.
Stacy May-Johnson squeezed home Michelle Moultrie in the first for a quick 1-0 lead, but Japan found a way to take the lead without even getting a hit.
Eri Yamada drew a leadoff walk in the bottom of the first, advanced on a pair of groundouts and then scored on a Keilani Ricketts (2-0) wild pitch to the backstop. Center fielder Rhea Taylor dropped Yuki Hayashi's fly ball to start the second, and she came around to score on consecutive tappers back to the circle.
The U.S. had only hours to bounce back after a 4-3 loss to Canada earlier in the day and preserve a realistic chance at reaching the championship game Monday night.
Kaleigh Rafter homered and drove in three runs as the Canadians beat the Americans for the second straight year. Despite never having even reached the championship game, Canada (3-1) is the only team ever to beat the U.S. more than once at the World Cup.
"We've played well against the U.S. national team here but we haven't really had much success in the tournament itself," said Rafter, who formerly played at Florida State. "So, getting to the championship game would for sure be big for us."