Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Happ's reaction to hit to head shows pitchers a different breed

ST. PETERSBURG

As he lay on the ground, deathly still, he was unsure what had happened to him. Blood was flowing from his left ear, and he felt pressure on that side of his skull. For a moment, J.A. Happ was as uncertain as anyone of just how seriously he was injured.

A day later, and he cannot wait to get back to get to the mound.

This is the insanity of the position. A batted ball had caromed off his skull, and already, Happ was talking about his return. The Blue Jays left-hander had collapsed in a ghastly image, and he wants his next chance. It is not an exaggeration to say that an inch here or there, and Happ could have died.

And still, he wants to return.

How crazy is this? In some ways, it is like surviving a plane crash then getting back on board another flight a few days later. It is like playing with snakes days after being bitten.

That is the code, however, and Happ signed up for the full tour. You push the risks to the back of your mind, and you swallow the fear. You realize what can happen, yet you ignore it. It is baseball, and you are a pitcher, and this is part of the package.

A day after Happ was hit by line drive off the bat of the Rays' Desmond Jennings, and this is what sticks with you in the aftermath. He wants to compete. There are stitches in his ear, and there is a small fracture to the bone just behind it, and his right knee aches where he twisted it trying to get out of the way.

And still, he wants the ball as quickly as the Blue Jays can hand it to him.

"I would like to get back as soon as possible," Happ, 30, said. "I think you just have to get back out there and forget about it. I don't anticipate it being a problem."

It takes a situation such as Happ's to remind the rest of us of the dangers of standing 20 yards away from the most lethal batters on earth, and you trust good fortune to keep you out of the way of the bullets that fly off their bats.

For a pitcher, for any pitcher, that is always the risk. Any one of them could be the next Happ. All it takes is the wrong fastball, the hanging curve, and a hitter with a notion of driving the ball up the middle.

It has always been the same in baseball. Fifty-six years earlier, down to the night, Gil McDougald bounced a ball off the face of Herb Score, a play that essentially ended Score's career. It was the same last September, when Brandon McCarthy of the A's was hit in the face by the Angels' Erick Aybar and underwent a two-hour surgery to relieve cranial pressure.

It is dangerous stuff, this pitching. True, a pitched ball can do its damage to a batter, but the batter can use elbow pads and ankle pads, and he is braced for the pitch from the outset. A pitcher whips his body into motion, always trying to get a little something extra on a pitch, and a result, he can be in an awkward position as a batted ball, traveling 110-120 mph, screams toward him.

"I just remember releasing the ball," Happ said. "I don't remember seeing it (coming at him). There was an immediate loud ringing in my ear, and there was pressure in my ear, and I was on the ground. I was very fortunate."

On Wednesday, Happ saw the video of the play. His reaction?

"I thought I made a decent pitch," he said. "I was frustrated."

And there you go. A little blood, a little fracture. No big deal.

You want to know the risks? Ask the Rays.

Two years ago, David Price was hit just below the collarbone by Mike Aviles of the Red Sox. Earlier this year, Adam Jones of the Orioles hit him just off the groin. Jeremy Hellickson can still tell you how much it hurt when Prince Fielder drove one off his shin, a ball he never saw coming. And Jeff Niemann suffered a fracture when Adam Lind's drive up the middle bounced off his ankle.

An inch here, and inch there, and all of those balls could have been to the head.

"I had a ball hit at my stomach at about 110 miles an hour in spring training," the Rays' Alex Cobb said. "I was lucky enough to get my glove on it. But it could have been at my chin, and I might not have been able to get the glove up.

"We all know what can happen out there, but you don't think about it. So many other things are going on out there that, until you have a close call, you don't think about it."

And the risks?

"To me, it's like a NASCAR driver having a wreck and wanting to get back in there," Cobb said. "Happ is going to have that fight. It's why he's a major-league pitcher."

Price has an unusual way of looking at the danger.

"Everyone's job has a part where you can get hurt," he said, "whether it's using a stapler or Super Glue. In every job, you have a chance of getting hurt."

A stapler? Who throws a 98 mph stapler?

That reveals a bit of the mind-set, too. For a pitcher, getting hit is no worse than a staple in the thumb. It's not injury, it's inconvenience.

And next time?

That's the point. You try not to think about a next time.

 
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