LEXINGTON – More than 10 minutes after the final out of Indiana’s season had come and gone, the first base dugout sat virtually motionless.
A collection of players had not moved from their draped-over position on the fencing separating the playing area and emotional place of sanctuary it had now become. Some stirred while others began embracing in long hugs.
As Kentucky Proud Park became a scene of celebration, Hoosier players watched as one Kentucky Wildcat after another did a victory lap, greeting as many of the record 6,796 fans that had been on hand as they could. Indiana had fallen just short of an NCAA Super Regional appearance, ending the night and the season on the wrong end of a 4-2 scoreline.
Emotionally, it’s a mixed bag. Some Indiana players are overcome with tears, such as Bobby Whalen — he was a step from beating out his high-chopping ground ball to second that would’ve given another breath to Indiana’s season. In the immediate aftermath, Whalen slammed his helmet and crouched to the ground. It wasn’t until Josh Pyne and Sam Murrison picked him up moments later that he finally left the playing field.
Phillip Glasser, on the other hand, had head coach Jeff Mercer consoling him on the dugout bench. A transfer from Youngstown State two seasons ago, Glasser became the unquestioned leader of a rebuilding Indiana team that was suddenly so ahead of schedule this year. Glasser’s Indiana career came to a close on Monday night.
As Mercer moved from a knee to the seat beside his shortstop, it’s as if those two were the only ones left in the building.
“There’s a lot of great things about this job, and that might be the worst. That sucks,” Mercer said Monday, his usual stern voice barely loud enough to register into the microphone. “I mean, that guy gave his whole heart and soul. He gave everything he had.”
He’s been Mercer’s security blanket ever since he arrived, having turned down the MLB draft and other professional opportunities for multiple seasons running. Just the night before, he’d said the only reason they were there in the first place was to win a Regional.
Glasser’s been a mainstay in Penguin and Hoosier lineups for every day the past five seasons. Yet, Mercer says he’s still the most passionate, focused and motivated player he’s ever coached — this opportunity was never lost on him once. He became the role model that Indiana could point to, elevating everyone around him to a standard of work and play that served as a catalyst in the year-long turnaround.
“I know how much he’s changed everyone around him, how much he’s blessed me to coach him,” Mercer said. “To see him hurt like that, it hurts you as a coach because you love him and you care about him. And sometimes we throw those things around too loosely.”
Of those that felt his impact the most was Devin Taylor, who said Glasser has been the main position player that has served as guidance ever since his arrival to Bloomington a summer ago.
“I was like, hip, hip, hooray, when he passed the draft and came back,” Taylor said. “I remember Mercer FaceTimed him and I was really happy that I was going to have a mentor like him to come back.”
Mercer knew it had to come to the end of the line at some point, that every coach would be greedy in wanting to keep their season alive. But to Mercer and Indiana, Glasser is the real deal. He has been for two seasons. There’s a good chance he will be at the next level, too.
“He’s just wired different,” Mercer said. “When you can say, ‘Be like Phillip Glasser. Work like that. Think like that. Be invested like that,’ it changes everything. So that’s what’s difficult. When you’re looking at this guy who is broken and you have to try and console him in this moment and you know how much he’s invested and how much he’s given to everybody around him, you just wanted to give him one more thing.”
It wasn’t for a lack of effort, either. Indiana bats struggled to piece together the same timely hitting that had been so crucial to victories throughout the season, but Hoosier arms kept them in it all evening long despite being short-staffed.
Heading into the winner-take-all game seven, Mercer and pitching coach Dustin Glant knew asking for length out of the pitchers they entrusted with the role would be a tall task. It wasn’t too tall for Ty Bothwell, though.
His 5.1 innings and 97 pitches were both a season-high for the redshirt fifth-year senior — likely the biggest environment Bothwell has ever toed the rubber in. The same left-hander who didn’t see the mound for a weeks-long stretch earlier this season was the one entrusted to start one of the program’s biggest contests in recent memory.
He couldn’t crack the weekend rotation and was now throwing in a leverage spot for the second time in four days. It’s a responsibility he didn’t take lightly, and he pitched like it.
“It meant everything,” Bothwell said at the postgame dais. “The fact that I was able to go out and compete and lay my heart out for this team meant everything to me.”
He’s a Hoosier born and raised, so anyone would understand if he’d have been tense or closed off — he’d known in private that he would be the starter before the general public did. But in the moments leading up to the start, Bothwell was as open as could be.
He filled in at first base as infielders fielded batting practice ground balls. He stopped to sign autographs on his way to the Indiana bullpen. Once there, he tossed baseballs up to fans, no matter who they were there to support. As fans heckled his final warmup tosses, he’d glance up and smile before firing a strike.
“It’s a kids’ game that we’re playing,” Bothwell said. “There’s no reason for me to treat the day differently than I’ve done any other day. Being there for the kids just like I would have when I was going around, going to games and stuff, I know how much it means to them. And I just try and treat it like it’s just another fun day out on the mound.”
Bothwell said he has a switch he can flip when it’s time to go compete, and he did — striking out seven and allowing only three hits. He’s working to create memories for himself and his team, but it’s an added bonus if he can do the same for kids in attendance.
“The biggest thing for me is just being there for others, no matter if it’s my teammates or fans in the stands and helping out with the kids,” Bothwell said. “It kind of warms my heart.”
Monday night, those who were wearing Kentucky blue carried over that happiness Bothwell shared to their commutes home. They’ll hope to carry it over to Baton Rouge, as Kentucky punched its ticket to the NCAA Super Regional for the first time since 2017 and just the second time ever.
Indiana has set a foundation to be in this position again in the coming years, and the vision of it will clear up sooner rather than later. But for now, the only vision that will last on them is the one of sorrow, emotion and the finality of a remarkable run.