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Softball at the Tokyo Olympics: Everything you need to know about new Olympic sport

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July 21-July 27

What to know

Not included in the Olympic program at the last two Summer Games, softball will be reintroduced to the program for the first time in 13 years.

Softball was originally intended as an alternate form of baseball. In the case of the Olympics, it is the sport females play, while men compete in baseball. Softball became a medal at the Olympics in 1996 in Atlanta, and was played at the next three Games.

Despite being popular in North America and Asia, the lack of interest in South America and Europe led to Olympic organizers removing the sport from past programs. Players from Team USA hope an exciting tournament can influence future decisions.

“When we got the news that softball had been voted back into the Olympic Games, it was really just a dream come true scenario for a lot of us,” U.S. outfielder Haylie McCleney said.

Softball is not on the program for the 2024 Paris Games, but it could make a return for 2028 in Los Angeles.

How it works

Much of the rules of softball are identical to baseball: Two teams of nine players on the field alternate between offense and defense with three outs per inning.

In softball, the field is much smaller, with the pitcher’s mound 40 feet away from home plate and bases 60 feet apart. Because that leads to more close plays, the first-base bag has a white half in fair territory and an orange half for the runner to use in foul ground.

Given the condensed environs, the game is more fast-paced with a greater emphasis on reflexes. That allows for shorter games, as does the fact softball lasts seven innings rather than nine, which is typical in baseball.

The ball is bigger but less dense than a baseball. Softball pitchers must deliver the ball underhand and often use a windmill motion to maximize velocity.

“Our game is a little bit different than baseball,” said Cat Osterman, who was a part of the 2008 Olympic squad that fell to Japan in the gold medal game. “You don’t have to be a certain type of athlete to be successful. You can be big, strong, short, quick.”

Path to gold

Six teams have qualified for the Games. They are: Japan, USA, Italy, Mexico, Canada and Australia.

They will all play each other once. Then, the top two teams will play for gold and the teams in third and fourth place will battle for bronze.

U.S. Athlete to Watch: Rachel Garcia, pitcher/first base

Two years after leading the UCLA Bruins to the NCAA title and being named the tournament's most outstanding player, Garcia is looking to add an Olympic gold medal. She's a force on the mound (she can reach 70 mph) and bats cleanup for UCLA with 42 career home runs.

International Athlete to Watch: Yukiko Ueno, pitcher

Ueno was a member of the 2004 Athens team that won bronze and helped lead Japan to gold in 2008, upsetting the U.S. in Beijing. There, she threw over 600 pitches in four days (413 in two days, three games). She delivered seven innings of one-run ball in the gold-medal game, stifling the Americans' bats to stand atop the podium. It will be interesting to see how her stuff holds up 13 years later.

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Olympic softball: What to know for the Tokyo Games