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Shocker! US softball loses gold medal to Japan

Beijing, China (Sports Network) - The United States softball team will remember the name Yukiko Ueno.

How long until they see her again is anyone's guess.

In the last Olympic softball game for at least eight years, Ueno pitched Japan to the gold medal on Thursday night in a shocking 3-1 upset of the three-time defending Olympic champion Americans.

The U.S. -- riding a 22-game winning streak dating back to a single loss at the 2000 Sydney Olympics -- was the overwhelming favorite to win the gold in Beijing, having claimed every one since Atlanta in 1996.

But Ueno stymied the notoriously powerful U.S. offense with seven solid innings -- bringing her total innings pitched to 28 over the last two days -- in leading Japan to its first gold medal in women's softball.

It will also be the last gold medal awarded in softball for at least eight years following the sport's removal from the schedule for the 2012 London Games.

U.S. dominance is believed to be the single greatest contributing factor towards its Olympic demise. But Thursday's silver medal could go along way towards changing those opinions.

"It's interesting because everyone says all the time that we win and no one can compete," said U.S. left fielder Jessica Mendoza. "It was proven today that (other) teams can (win). The sport should remain. It's global. It's been a beautiful last two weeks of softball."

The U.S. beat Japan 7-0 last week, but didn't have to face the same obstacle it did this night.

Backed by a solid defensive effort, especially by the Japanese infield, Ueno (5-1) yielded just five hits and one run to an American offense that came into the game averaging seven runs per game.

"It was my strong desire to win," she said.

It was deja vu for the U.S. hitters.

On Wednesday, they needed nine innings -- two extra -- to score their first runs against Ueno in a semifinal game they won 4-1 to advance to the gold medal game.

Ueno pitched all nine innings of that game, then 12 more in a thrilling victory over Australia later in the day to set up another matchup with the U.S.

She was back on the mound again Thursday night. And the Americans, who won five of their first seven games by the mercy rule without having to face Ueno, couldn't have been happy to see her.

"I have to really take my hat off to her," said Mendoza.

Crystl Bustos, the sport's premier power hitter, had the most luck against the Japanese ace, hitting a solo home run in the fourth inning that counted as the only U.S. run.

But by then, the Americans were already scrambling to climb out of a hole against Ueno.

It's not like they didn't have any chances.

The U.S. loaded the bases in the bottom of the first inning, but couldn't get a run across when Bustos and Kelly Kretschman grounded into a pair of fielder's choices and Andrea Duran flied out.

Japan broke a scoreless tie in the third inning when Masumi Mishina led off with a double -- the first hit against U.S. starter Cat Osterman (3-1) -- was sacrificed to third and scored on Ayumi Karino's long infield single to the shortstop.

The Japanese reached Osterman again when Eri Yamada led off the fourth with a check-swing solo home run to dead centerfield. The run gave Japan a 2-0 lead, and brought with it a sudden downpour that stopped the game for a rain delay.

The wet spectators and players didn't know that the winning run had already been scored.

When the game resumed, the U.S. halved its deficit with an Olympic-sized shot in the arm from its best offensive player.

Bustos led off the bottom of the fourth with a homer, her second in as many days against Ueno. The top power hitter in the world, Bustos also launched a three-run shot off the talented right-hander in the ninth inning of Wednesday's game.

But Japan came back with a run in the seventh inning against Monica Abbott, sparked by Megu Hirose's leadoff single. Hirose eventually score on fielder's choice, but the U.S. got another runner at the plate.

In the bottom of the seventh, their last chance for the gold until at least 2016 hanging in the balance, the Americans were no match for Ueno or her backing defense.

Victoria Galindo led off with a pinch-hit single, but shortstop Rei Nishiyama made a running play in foul territory to catch Tairia Flowers' pop-up for the first out. Hirose made a spectacular stab at third base on a hard line-drive from Natasha Watley for the second out, then turned around and made another nice play on Caitlin Lowe's grounder to end the game.

The Japanese celebrated in a huddle by the pitcher's mound -- maybe the last celebration at the Olympics for a sport that has perhaps demonstrated its global reach a little too late.

"If we had the Olympics tomorrow, it would still make it hard to lose," said Watley. "It doesn't make any difference. It hurts to lose."

08/21 10:09:46 ET

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