BLOOMINGTON — Caring comes with a catch; how lousy it feels to lose. Indiana was just reminded of that.
In this basketball town, nothing has hurt worse lately than a baseball game. They have fallen in love with the sport around here, which is why the stands were full Monday night, even after a three-hour rain delay. The masses have learned much about college baseball in the Hoosiers’ rapid and extraordinary ascent to national relevance, and now they’ve learned something else.
The game can be as cruel as any other. Sometimes, more so.
The tutorial came on a two-run Stanford homer in the bottom of the ninth. Just like that, a 5-foot-10 freshman from San Diego named Tommy Edman turned out the lights, and the party was over.
And so, as the clock struck midnight – literally, as well as figuratively, on the Hoosiers’ hopes of a return to the College World Series – a throng stood outside the clubhouse, waiting to console the stricken Indiana players, as if they were survivors off a shipwreck.
Inside, the Hoosiers were just beginning the long, slow recovery, which happens when a dream goes bust.
There was the coach who has built this sudden powerhouse. “For me, it’s not going to be defined by the loss at the end of the season. I kind of refuse to go there, because there were too many good things,” Tracy Smith said.
There was the future high draft pick catcher, who hit .588 in the regional and still lost. “You’re just in a state of awe about what happened, and what could have happened,” Kyle Schwarber said, “and what this team was, and what we could have done.”
There was the senior third baseman who leaves with 316 career hits, more than any active player in the nation. “We had a great season. Didn’t turn out the way we wanted,” Dustin DeMuth said. “But sooner or later, we’ll have to hold our heads high and realize what we accomplished.”
Such as owning the Big Ten for two years and getting the highest NCAA tournament seed the league has ever seen, and that first-ever World Series appearance last June. Plus, the full houses at a school that not so long ago would be lucky to break a hundred at a baseball game.
All reasons why baseball has come of age in Bloomington. Why the horizons were broadened and the goals higher. And why Monday night stung so deeply. Indiana has been known to be distressed by what could have been in football’s autumn or basketball’s winter. But on June 2?
Nearly all epic defeats come with ironies. This one did.
There was the fact Hoosier pitchers allowed only nine home runs in 56 games this season, but six in three days to Stanford.
Or the fact Edman’s victim, Scott Effross, had not thrown a home run pitch all year, in more than 54 innings.
Or the fact that, because of NCAA scheduling procedures, Stanford was the home team Monday. Which means Indiana endured the rare agony of a loss on a game-ending home run in its own ballpark.
A month ago, Smith sat in his office and talked about how much he enjoyed the new parity in college baseball.
How could he have guessed he’d feel the wrong end of that new age a month later? Nine of the 16 regional No. 1 seeds were eliminated on their own fields. That included No. 1 Oregon State, the royal Sunshine State triumvirate of Florida, Florida State and Miami … and Indiana.
“I don’t think you could ask for a better game,” Smith said of Monday night’s 5-4 showdown. Only a better ending. And now Smith has many faces to replace to keep the renaissance going.
But in the debris of defeat there was a sure sign of a maturing power, and the gift this team gave to its school and fans. Once, Indiana could only fantasize about going to the College World Series. Now, it hurts not to.