Could this loss actually bring back Olympic softball?

BEIJING -- Crystl Bustos and Laura Berg were supposed to leave their cleats on the field. It was going to be a symbolic gesture, their goodbye as the fog set in and a sport drifted away. They'd collect their gold medals shortly after 9 p.m., just before the critics said one last time that this is the reason softball is ending at the Olympics, because the rest of the world can't compete.

Bustos' cleats never surfaced late Thursday night … and neither did the national anthem. She walked out in sunglasses, in the dark, then her United States softball team took an unusual turn to the left. In what will be considered possibly the biggest upset of the 2008 Summer Games, Japan beat the Americans 3-1, snapping their 22-game winning streak to win gold.

Thunder sticks from a pro-Japan crowd greeted the most unlikely Olympic heroes at Fengtai Softball Field. The Japanese do not have modelesque looks or gaudy home run records. They chatter incessantly, huddle like linemen between innings, and, by all appearances, are completely unaware of what they accomplished.

But some say they might've saved softball, or at least made its re-appearance in the 2016 Games more realistic. Before Thursday night, the Americans hadn't lost since Sept. 21, 2000, in Sydney. Before Yukiko Ueno's noodle arm stymied the United States' powerful bats, the Americans had beaten their competition by a margin of 108-3 in the past two Olympics.

"Maybe people will get off our backs and realize that there is some parity in this game," U.S. coach Mike Candrea said. "I've always felt that the rest of the world is getting better.

"It's nice to see a full room of reporters here. We haven't had you around most of the time. Who knows what will happen? I don't worry about that. I just know I've been around the game long enough to respect everyone we play. Sometimes the game looks easy. And it really isn't."

The night was dubbed the "Grand Final." Softball was voted out of the Olympics in 2005 by a vote of 52-52 (it needed one more vote to stay). For three years, America's golden girls have been anticipating the end, planning their final goodbyes in Beijing. They hammered the Japanese 7-0 in preliminary play, and beat them again, 4-1, Wednesday night round-robin semifinal action.

Ueno pitched 21 innings Wednesday to get her team to the title game.

The gathering at Fengtai was not the most astute in softball. They cheered foul balls, and when Bustos hit a home run in the bottom of the fourth to cut the lead to one, the P.A. announcer yelled, "Congratulations! She started playing softball at the age of 5!"

Fans wore yellow rain ponchos during sprinkles that turned into a quick downpour. Bustos barely cracked a smile as she rounded third base after her solo shot. It appeared as if the Americans had a rally brewing, and they were relatively expressionless in the bottom of the sixth inning, when they stranded the bases loaded after Stacey Nuveman popped out to second.

The night was about to get worse for the Americans. They gave up two uncharacteristic errors in the top of the seventh, and Japan had a 3-1 cushion. But nearly everybody -- including the man in the crowd with the inflatable cowboy hat on his head and a beer in his hand -- thought the U.S. would rally.

Pinch-hitter Victoria Galindo led off the bottom of the seventh with a single to left center, bringing Tairia Flowers to the plate as the potential tying run. She popped out in foul territory, then Natasha Watley lined out to third.

Caitlin Lowe grounded out to third, and the Americans stood in stunned silence as "We are the Champions" played and Ueno was hoisted on her teammates' shoulders. She extended a No. 1 signal to the crowd, and Bustos and her teammates waited in a line along third base to shake hands.

"I haven't really thought about the big picture," pitcher Cat Osterman said. "It hurts too much to look at the future."

They held hands as they stepped up to the medals podium, then lingered to wave goodbye. Some smiled; others dabbed their eyes. As he stood in a dark parking lot near the team bus more than an hour after the loss, Candrea said he'd remind the team about perspective. They'd won three gold medals since softball started in the 1996 Olympics. They will have worlds and the Pan Am Games to compete in.

Candrea plans to spend his summers playing golf now and re-connecting with this family. Four years ago, before Athens, he lost his wife to a brain aneurysm as the pre-Olympics tour was winding down.

"I'm just proud of them," he said. "I don't want them to hang their heads too long.

"We had a hell of a run."

Elizabeth Merrill writes for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.