As Dansby Swanson took a curtain call late-Saturday night at Chris Hawkins Field in Nashville, Chris Lemonis and his boys packed up the dugout knowing a long weekend would lie ahead of them if they were to win the regional. They had given Vanderbilt, if not their best shot, a pretty damn good one. But in the 9th inning of a game that felt like it could have gone 15, the best player on the field, and perhaps in the country, took over and single-handedly gave his team a win.
In any situation, it's hard to come back the day after a crushing loss like that and play your best game. Factor in that the next day in this scenario was an elimination game (or two) and you get a perfect storm of conditions working against you.
And as it turned out, the Hoosiers couldn't get up for Radford on Saturday. Three batters into the game, IU found itself in a 2-0 hole. And although the effort was there and they were able to tie the ballgame, 3-3, in the 6th, the energy and focus never appeared to be there. It had all been left on the field the night before. It was chipped away at by a diving catch by Bryan Reynolds, a slew of relief pitchers throwing in the mid-90s, and Swanson's magic.
Over three innings in the latter part of the game, Indiana struck four Radford batters. The last one turned out to be costly. After Thomas Belcher plunked a leadoff man, a Radford SAC bunt attempt should've meant an easy out, but Belcher's throw pulled Cangelosi from the bag and the Highlanders were in business. They would go on to score both of those runners and put the game out of reach at 5-3, the eventual final score.
The entire weekend was a fitting ending for the topsy turvy season that Indiana had. It saw an entire day (Friday) of near perfect play in every aspect of the game. It saw a hard fought, winnable ballgame (Saturday) that slipped away after a few costly mistakes. And it saw a game (Sunday) where the energy and focus were nowhere to be found.
As the game slipped away from the Hoosiers on Sunday evening, it started to set in for Indiana fans in attendance that the seniors who had successfully shouldered the burden of bringing IU baseball to national prominence were playing their last innings in cream and crimson. As the rain poured down on the Hoosiers in the bottom of the 9th, senior Will Nolden struck out to start the inning. Next, Austin Cangelosi and Brian Wilhite, a sophomore and a junior, respectively, stepped up to the plate for what would be the final two at-bats of the season.
In a way, it was a non-ceremonious passing of the torch from the group who started at Sembower and ended at Bart Kaufman with a stop in Omaha along the way to the youngsters who had the best role models in program history.
And when Wilhite ran past first base, let out an expletive, and slowly made his way back to the defeated Indiana dugout, it was more clear than ever before that the group taking the torch was worthy and able. The Class of 2015 taught them to care, to fight, and to win.
It may not have happened yet, but in the coming days, weeks, or months, when the sting from this regional starts to wear off, each one of the eight seniors will realize what I realized when I saw the hurt and the anger out of Wilhite. They've created a culture and an attitude for this program that has assured one very important thing:
Indiana baseball is here to stay.
In the coming days, CQ will have a final report card for the Hoosiers and a look at what lies ahead for the program in 2016.