BEIJING — Losing for the first time since 2000, the U.S. softball team was denied a chance for a fourth straight gold medal Thursday, beaten 3-1 by Japan in the sport's last appearance in the Olympics for at least eight years _ and maybe for good.
Yukiko Ueno, Japan's remarkably resilient right-hander, shut down the Americans and handed them their first loss since Sept. 21, 2000 at the Sydney Games. The U.S. had won 22 straight since then, most of them with outrageously lopsided scores.
Another gold was certainly within reach. Instead, they walked off Fengtai Field with their heads bowed.
"It hurts a lot," slugger Crystl Bustos said. "You train your whole life and you want to win. You don't expect to lose."
The U.S. team never led and made two uncharacteristic errors in the seventh inning to help the Japanese add an important insurance run _ one they didn't even need.
When Caitlin Lowe grounded to third for the final out, Vicky Galindo, who led off the U.S. team's seventh inning with a pinch-hit single, wrapped her hands over her helmet and cringed.
Moments later, U.S. coach Mike Candrea huddled with his stunned players, many of whom couldn't even look up. Lowe choked back tears as Bustos tried to console her overwhelmed teammates.
Bustos, who homered in the fourth for the Americans' only run, was first in line to congratulate the Japanese players. As she shook hands with the U.S. team, Japan catcher Yukiyo Mine teared up.
"You don't want it to end this way, but it's all we could do," said Bustos, who attended the medal ceremony wearing sunglasses.
This wasn't how it was supposed to end for the Americans, who had lost just four of 36 in Olympic play.
Not this team. Not this time. Not this tournament.
The U.S. has dominated the sport since its Olympic debut in 1996, winning all three golds, rewriting the record books and setting a standard for a sport considered too All-American by some.
It was the Americans' utter domination _ they outscored the field 51-1 four years ago in Greece _ that may have contributed to the International Olympic Committee's decision to drop the sport in a close vote taken in 2006.
The U.S arrived in China determined to put on a show of power, precision and poise. And except for a tense, nine-inning 4-1 win over Ueno and Japan in the semifinals, the Americans had done just that. That game was by far their toughest test in the tournament _ until they met Ueno again in the final.
"She just beat us," U.S. starter Cat Osterman said. "I'm not hanging my head too much about it."
One of the few players in the field who could win a roster spot on the U.S. squad, Ueno stopped the Americans on a cool, drizzly night. The day before, she had pitched 21 innings _ the equivalent of three complete games _ to get her team to the gold-medal match.
Less than 24 hours later she was back on the mound and appeared no worse for it. The 26-year-old Ueno was handed the ball again by coach Haruka Saito, who didn't have many other options against the U.S. team's relentless top-to-bottom attack.
Though it's rare for a pitcher at this level to work consecutive days, Ueno's performance can stand with any in these games. Not only was it physically demanding in China's thick air, but she couldn't afford a misstep in two matchups with the U.S. or against the free-swinging Aussies, who won bronze.
How did she do it?
"It was my strong belief to win," she said through an interpreter.
Except for Bustos' homer, Ueno was in command. She was able to escape a pair of one-out, bases-loaded situations to keep the American scoring machine in check. And needing three outs in the seventh, her shortstop raced into foul territory to snag a pop up by Tairia Flowers and then her third baseman backhanded Natasha Watley's hot smash.
Always out front, this time the U.S. found itself trailing 2-0 in the fourth inning. It was the first time the Americans were behind by more than a run in four Olympics, and it proved to be too much for the world's best lineup to overcome.
Bustos had cut it to 2-1 with her 14th career homer, and it looked as if the Americans would finally get to Ueno in the sixth when they loaded the bases.
Lowe singled leading off and Candrea, who came in 17-0 in Olympic games, had Jessica Mendoza, one of his power hitters, sacrifice. The decision moved Lowe to second, but it allowed Ueno to avoid Bustos by intentionally walking the fearsome slugger.
Kelly Kretschman walked to put runners at every base, but Andrea Duran popped to short and Stacey Nuveman, a three-time Olympian, popped to second.
Ueno had done it again, and sensing they had dodged disaster, the Japanese players sprinted off the field while doubt began creeping into the Americans' dugout.
Surely, though, they would come back in the seventh.
"I thought we still had a chance," pitcher Monica Abbott said.
But the timely hits that were always there, were swallowed up by Japan's sure hands.
And when the last out of softball's farewell game was recorded, there was nothing more the U.S. team could do but wonder what went wrong.
Too emotional to talk, the Americans retreated to their locker room before filing back onto the field for the awards ceremony.
They stepped onto the risers to the right of the smiling gold-medal winners and accepted silver. Clutching a bouquet, Mendoza's legs shook as she and her teammates watched Japan's flag being slowly raised up the pole in the place where the Stars and Stripes had always flown.
Moments later, Bustos, Flowers, Lovieanne Jung, Laura Berg and Kelly Kretschman walked to home plate carrying their cleats. They are retiring from international competition, and the five Americans left them there in the dirt as a tribute.
It was their way of saying goodbye to softball, the sport they had played better than anyone else.
For all but one game.