BEIJING - During the first seven games of the Olympics, the U.S. women's softball team proved it could win in a rout, outscoring its opponents by an average score of nearly 8-0.

On Wednesday, the Americans proved they could win a nail-biter, too.

Taken to the limit by Japan, the U.S. scored four runs in the top of the ninth - three of them on Crystl Bustos' fifth home run of the tournament - to win 4-1 and advance to Thursday's gold medal game against the winner of the Australia-Canada semifinal, which was played later Wednesday afternoon.

The Americans rode the arm of Monica Abbott of Salinas, Calif. The 6-foot-3 lefthander struck out 11 and yielded just three hits, one walk and one run in eight innings. Cat Osterman closed out the game in the ninth as the U.S. won it's 22nd consecutive Olympic game and kept alive its hopes of a fourth gold medal.

"Monica was sensational," said U.S. coach Mike Candrea. "You talk about a pressure-packed pitching performance. There was no margin for error."

Abbott, who had pitched a perfect game in her first Olympic start last week, had been used to going only five innings lately because the U.S. offense has been pummeling teams and the five-inning, run-ahead rule has been in effect.

But Wednesday she was stretched to eight innings, and actually pitched to one batter in the ninth before Candrea pulled her.

"That's what you prepare for," she said when asked about the extra-inning outing. "You prepare for the 14-inning game, so that when you go five innings, it's a bonus."

She went eight superb innings against Japan.

"She stepped up at a time when we needed her the most," said centerfielder Caitlin Lowe. "If we win the gold, we may look back at this as the crucial one."