OMAHA, Neb. — Eye sockets swollen and walking slower than normal, Peyton Plumlee pushed through the tunnel at TD Ameritrade Park.
Moments earlier, the senior pitcher emotionally embraced his teammates, coaches and family after a Mississippi State baseball game for the final time. When he stepped away from the beaming lights and went up the shoot toward the locker room, he couldn't help but look down.
"Hey Peyton, hold your head up," a national photographer said as he passed by.
"Thank you," Plumlee said. "I appreciate it."
Senior center fielder Jake Mangum had trouble keeping his head up, too. When the Louisville Cardinals walked off with a win in Thursday night's College World Series elimination game, Mangum sat motionless in center field as the Cards converged to his right.
They hooted and hollered, jumped up and down and ran around like they had just won it all. They hadn't, of course. But they're still alive and have a chance to do so.
That's more than Mississippi State can say, and that was a tough fact to face for the seniors who don't have an opportunity to make it back to Omaha.
"It sucks, bad," senior right fielder Elijah MacNamee said in the locker room after he finished crying and hugging those who traveled so far to watch him play in a maroon and white uniform for the last time.
Like Mangum, MacNamee crouched down and stayed in his spot in right field while Louisville was having its moment.
"Right when that ball was hit, it kind of already sank in," MacNamee said. "I felt it. I was like, 'There's no way this is what just happened.'"
"It didn't really feel real," Mangum added. "You tell yourself something in your head so much, you expect it's going to happen."
Mangum and MacNamee have meant more to Mississippi State than almost any other duo in program history. Two of the school's 11 College World Series appearances came while they were patrolling the outfield and getting clutch hits at the plate.
Mangum will be remembered as the mayor. The hits king. The heart and soul of the Bulldog baseball program during all four years of his collegiate career.
MacNamee will be remembered for his walk-off home runs against Florida State and Vanderbilt in the 2018 NCAA Tournament and for his three-run blast in his final at-bat at Dudy Noble Field against Stanford in this year's Super Regional.
Both will be remembered for how much they loved to wear maroon and white on a baseball field.
It might take a while to flush this loss and reflect fully on their stellar careers, but when they have a chance to do so, they have no choice but to think positively of what they accomplished at Mississippi State.
Still fighting back tears, MacNamee came close to already getting to that point.
"We're going to walk out of here with our heads high and our shoulders back because we did something special here for the last two years," MacNamee said.
"I've been very fortunate for the last four years," he said. "God has been very, very good to me for those four years, and they were the best four years of my life. Mississippi State baseball, it's literally a part of me, you know. I hate it ended this way, but it is what it is."
And then there's players like Plumlee, and fellow pitcher Cole Gordon, seniors just like Mangum and MacNamee who will never wear Mississippi State across their chests in a college baseball game again.
Gordon walked the length of the field, from the spot the final team huddle of the season took place in right field all the way to the dugout, with hitting coach Jake Gautreau's arm draped over his shoulders. Gordon's eyes were no less red and puffy than those of his teammates.
Gordon was the guy on the mound when Louisville had its ninth-inning rally to stave off elimination and send the Bulldogs packing. He hadn't given up a run in his last seven appearances. He gave up the two runs the Cardinals needed to walk it off.
He'll be remembered for emphatic fist pumps and electric strikeouts to close out ballgames, but his last night as a Bulldog just didn't go the way he imagined it would.
"It just wasn't in the cards for us," Gordon said. "It just didn't play out the way we wanted it to. It's hard to stomach that, but it is what it is."
Plumlee watched his career come to an end from the dugout. He's used to watching his teammates play while he can do nothing but cheer them on. He was suspended for his entire junior season for failing an NCAA mandated drug test.
But he'll be remembered for serving his time and coming back to be one of the most important pieces in getting Mississippi State back to the College World Series.
Plumlee's final outing in a Mississippi State uniform might've been a loss to Vanderbilt, but he said he wouldn't trade the opportunity he was given for anything in the world.
"It's sad that it has to end early, but I'm super blessed I was able to wear the maroon and white and represent this university and the state of Mississippi," Plumlee said.
Contact Tyler Horka at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tbhorka on Twitter. To read more of Tyler's work, subscribe to the Clarion Ledger today!