Cuba end Australia's World Baseball Classic adventure
Australia's great baseball adventure in Japan is over - but, to the very end, the national team players did themselves proud and proved they can slug it out with the best in the global ballpark.
That was the message from manager Dave Nilsson after his team of battlers finally ran out of surprises at the Tokyo Dome on Wednesday night, succumbing 4-3 to one of the sport's powerhouse nations Cuba in the quarter-finals of the World Baseball Classic.
And such has been the impact of their breakthrough that their players believe they may have changed the face of the game back in their homeland.
"Basically this trip is redefining Australian baseball back home and hopefully it changes the conversation," said Darryl George, one of the stars of the campaign who helped give his team the chance to dream a bit more when his second-inning double offered a near-perfect start.
Rixon Wingrove's inspired slugging then stole the show for Australia as his RBI single capitalised on George's initial blow, which was perilously close to being a homer, and gave Australia a 1-0 lead.
After the Cubans had moved 4-1 ahead after a three-run fifth inning, Philadelphia Phillies southpaw prospect Wingrove then cracked a two-run homer in the sixth that brought the Australians right back into the contest.
Ultimately, though, despite threatening to get back on terms at the top of the eighth with two men on base, the strength of the Cuban bullpen ensured they extricated themselves from trouble and sealed victory with pitcher Raidel Martinez closing the deal clinically at the top of the ninth.
It ended a wonderful tournament for Nilsson's team, whose breakthrough into the knockout stages even rivalled their semi-final win over Japan and silver medal at the 2004 Olympics as the finest achievement ever by an Australian baseball team.
But the former Milwaukee Brewers player Nilsson, affectionately known throughout the league as "Dingo", admitted to some sadness that they hadn't gone further, with the Cubans heading off to Miami for the semi-finals and not his blokes.
"Right now, I'm very disappointed," he said. "We had a chance, we had opportunities to win that game and we just couldn't get it done."
Still, Nilsson was left confident about the team's future.
"One thing where Team Australia is very unique, we have a very small player pool, and that's a strength. We can build a program and already identify who the players are going to be over the next three to five years," he said.
"Unlike other countries, who have hundreds of players to choose from, if not thousands, I can really map that out over a three or four-year period.
"It's not just about playing good now but making sure in 2026 when we come back that we are playing good there and that I have all the pieces right."
His team certainly captured the imagination. They won over a host of new fans amid the Japanese crowd, who ended up following the lead of star man Tim Kennelly's young daughter in the stand as she sang: "Let's go, daddy, let's go!"
The crowd loved the charismatic George, chanting his name too after his emotional post-match comments had gone viral after the previous win over the Czechs.
"Massive underdogs, nobody expects anything of us, there's tons of people back home, tons of kids coming through the juniors. We play to win, to put more food on the table, to get more funding for them, to give them more opportunities," George had said, his eyes moist and his face beaming.
"It feels so good!"