By Paresh Dave
YOKOHAMA, Japan (Reuters) -Olympic newcomers Mexico overcame Australia 4-1 on Monday to reach the bronze-medal match-up with Canada, after the United States beat Japan 2-1 in a dress rehearsal for the gold-medal game.
Mexico's offence surged for the second straight night as Victoria Vidales had two runs batted in on two of the team's 11 hits, while pitcher Dallas Escobedo nearly tossed a second consecutive complete game shutout.
They will face Canada, who have competed at each of softball's four Olympic appearances but never placed higher than fourth. Australia had won silver or bronze every time.
The United States struggled on offence, failing to get a hit off Japan's third-string pitcher Yamato Fujita until the sixth inning.
Kelsey Stewart's tie-breaking homer did win the game an inning later for the United States. But, as the team's 3-1 loss to Japan in the Beijing 2008 final showed, counting on lucky hits late in the game delivers inconsistent returns. They failed to hit in key moments against Yukiko Ueno during that game and lost out on gold for the first time.
Ueno, 39, is back, as are U.S. hurlers Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott. Monday's win means the United States will bat after Japan in the final.
"Get 'em on, get 'em over and get 'em in. That's they way we've played and won games. Timely hitting," U.S. coach Ken Eriksen said. "I wish we could have 18 runs, but we're playing against great pitching."
Overall, the United States scored nine runs on 27 hits in the opening round with Stewart's their lone home run. They stranded 35 runners.
By contrast, Japan had double the runs on 26 hits, including six homers, and left 34 on base.
The rivals went unbeaten against the other four teams at Tokyo 2020 to set up the 2008 rematch. They have also met for the last seven world championships, with the U.S. winning five.
Softball has returned to the Olympics for the first time since 2008, and medal contenders said they hope exciting finals can make the sport a permanent feature.
Last-placed Italy on Monday scored their only run of the Olympics in an 8-1 loss to Canada.
Italy enjoyed the Olympic experience, their players loudly singing their national anthem, handing out cards with their faces on to stadium ushers and snapping pictures by the Olympics logo on the outfield fence.
Forecast rain could delay the medal games on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Peter Rutherford and Ed Osmond)