Amy Sancetta, Associated Press
USA softball coach Mike Candrea hugs pitcher Cat Osterman after the team lost to Japan 3-1 in the gold-medal game.

BEIJING — They walked around in a daze unsure of what to do next.

Andrea Duran leaned on a fence and cried. Lovieanne Jung sat alone on the charter bus. Laura Berg politely signed a few autographs for Olympic volunteers. Stacey Nuveman and Monica Abbott hugged each other tightly, almost afraid to let go.

The U.S. softball team never thought it would lose. Not here, not now, not in these Olympics.

"This isn't how it was supposed to end," pitcher Cat Osterman said.

In softball's final appearance for at least eight years — and perhaps for good — the good-as-gold Americans met their match.

Behind a rubber-armed pitcher who stared down the world's mightiest lineup and never blinked, Japan stunned the U.S. team 3-1 on Thursday, denying the Americans a fourth straight gold medal in the sport's last swing until at least 2016.

The loss was the first for the Americans since Sept. 21, 2000, at the Sydney Games. They had won 22 in a row, most by outrageously lopsided scores. With power pitchers, power hitters, power everything, the Americans set the standard and showed no signs of slowing down.

But Yukiko Ueno, who pitched 21 innings one day earlier to give her country a shot at gold, worked out of two bases-loaded jams as Japan outplayed the Americans with solid defense and two big hits.

"We had opportunities," said Nuveman, a three-time Olympic catcher. "We just couldn't get that big hit."

This was the upset the softball world had been waiting for. And, in a strange way, the one it may have needed.

The U.S. has dominated the sport since its Olympic debut in 1996, and that utter domination — outscoring the field 51-1 four years ago in Greece — that may have contributed to the International Olympic Committee's decision to drop the sport from the 2012 London Games.

To bolster its case for reinstatement, softball needs to show the IOC before its next vote (set for Denmark in October 20O9) that it has grown globally and that the rest of the world was gaining on the Americans.

Well, here's proof.

"If this can be an aid to get us back in the Games, then so be it," U.S. coach Mike Candrea said. "I think this game is very good right now."

This time, the U.S. outscored the field 57-2 through eight games. The Americans batted .348, their opponents .054. They threw two no-hitters, a perfect game and gave up zero earned runs in 48 innings.

What promised to be a more competitive tournament than Athens turned into a tourist stop: Behold the Great Maul.

But with Ueno on the mound, Japan had given the U.S. all it could handle on Wednesday in the semifinals, forcing the Americans to extra innings before Crystl Bustos hit a three-run homer in a 4-1 win.

Ueno had pitched an entire game (nine innings) and then added 12 more as Japan beat Australia 4-3 in bronze-medal play to set up a rematch with the Americans. With few other options — the U.S. pounded Naho Emoto and Mika Someya in the prelims — coach Haruka Saito turned again to Ueno, who went a total of 28 innings over two days.

Did she ever come through.

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.

How did she do it?

"It was my strong belief to win," she said through an interpreter.

She was in trouble in the first, but the Americans couldn't push a run across despite having the bases loaded.

Japan took a 1-0 lead in the third. Masumi Mishina doubled for the first extra-base hit against U.S. pitching in nine games. Yukiyo Mine sacrificed, and with two outs, Ayumi Karino beat out a bouncer, scoring Mishina with the first earned run against the Americans.

"Behind" is not a place the U.S. knows well.

Soon, the Americans found themselves in a deeper hole.

Eri Yamada opened the fourth by driving Osterman's first pitch over the center-field wall. Suddenly, it was 2-0 Japan, the biggest deficit the Americans had faced in 37 Olympic games.

More ominous, it was also the first homer off a U.S pitcher since Sept. 21, 2000 — the Americans' previous loss.

"I wish I could have that pitch back," Osterman said.

Both Japanese hitters seemed to guess correctly on her deadly riseball, and they may have been helped by third-base coach Hiroko Tamoto. A silver medalist in 2000, Tamoto, who still wears batting gloves in the coach's box, yelled at Japan's hitters while Osterman was in her windup. Whatever she screamed, it helped.

Interestingly, Tamoto had coached first base earlier in the tournament.

Osterman settled down and got two outs, when the game was stopped by rain. When it resumed 19 minutes later, Osterman got the third out and the U.S. players gathered in front of their dugout.

"Let's go, U.S.A!" Jennie Finch shouted.

Bustos heard her — loud and clear,

Bustos, a three-time Olympian, led off the fourth with the 14th homer of her Olympic career, cutting Japan's lead to 2-1. But the U.S. squandered a bases-loaded opportunity in the sixth inning, and Japan, which added an insurance run in the seventh, just kept making all the plays it needed in the field.

It looked as if the Americans would finally get to Ueno when they loaded the bases in the sixth. But she got Duran to pop to short and Nuveman to second. Danger averted, Japan's players sprinted to their dugout.

The Americans were rattled and they made two uncharacteristic errors in the seventh to help the Japanese add an important insurance run — one they didn't even need.

Surely, the U.S. would come back, and they nearly did.

Vicky Galino led off the seventh with a pinch-hit single. But Tairia Flowers fouled out on a ball that Japan's shortstop snared after a long run and Natasha Watley followed with a rocket down the third-base line that was caught.

Caitlin Lowe grounded to third for the final out, and Japan's overjoyed players danced in the infield. Across the way, the Americans hung their heads and quickly retreated to their locker room to compose themselves.

After the final out, the Americans hung their heads and quickly retreated to their locker room to compose themselves. They were comforted by Candrea, who had lost his wife, Sue, just before the 2004 games.

"I told them I was proud of them," he said. "We had one hell of a run. I almost wish we had lost a game early on. Then, this wouldn't hurt so much."

Later, the stunned Americans got their silver medals, little consolation for a team accustomed to gold.

As she and her teammates watched Japan's flag being raised up the pole, Jessica Mendoza's legs shook and she bit her lip.

Afterward, Berg, a four-time Olympian, Bustos, Jung, Flowers and Kelly Kretschman clasped hands and walked to home plate, cleats in hand, to say goodbye to a game they loved.

Each one left a pair in the dirt.

It was time to move on.