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Pitchers' head injuries have baseball seeking solutions

Medical officials take Rays pitcher Alex Cobb off the field after he was hit in the head by a ball during a game against the Kansas City Royals last Saturday night at Tropicana Field.
Medical officials take Rays pitcher Alex Cobb off the field after he was hit in the head by a ball during a game against the Kansas City Royals last Saturday night at Tropicana Field.
Published Jun. 22, 2013

Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ said he couldn't believe the stunning, and scary, case of deja vu.

Happ was in his Dunedin hotel room last Saturday when he caught the replays of Rays right-hander Alex Cobb getting hit on the right side of his head by a line drive at Tropicana Field. Cobb was carted off on a stretcher, taken to a hospital and diagnosed with a concussion.

For Happ, the scene was "eerily similar" to when he was hit on the left side of his head with a liner on the same field five weeks earlier.

"Definitely a scary moment," Happ said. "I couldn't believe it was the exact same thing. Same mound, same place. Obviously I said a quick prayer on the spot for him and hope that nothing serious happens."

Happ feels fortunate the most serious injury he suffered was sprained ligaments in his right knee, which is what he's rehabbing at the Jays' minor-league complex while on the 60-day disabled list. His skull fracture is healed, and he has regained his hearing, though he admitted it took a few weeks for him to feel normal again. As with Cobb, who is on the seven-day concussion DL, there's no timetable for when Happ will pitch again.

But their close calls have increased the discussion around Major League Baseball on the issue of protecting pitchers, with many wondering what — if anything — can be done to prevent a potentially catastrophic injury.

"We all don't want someone to get killed for something to be done about it," Rays veteran reliever Jamey Wright said.

MLB medical director Gary Green said the league has been actively working with eight companies on developing and testing protective headgear that could be worn by pitchers, mainly dealing with lining inside the current caps. They've made "good progress," but nothing has met the balance of being lightweight, comfortable, yet "able to have someone take a 90 miles per hour line drive and walk away from it," Green said.

"Whoever comes up with the solution for this, they're never going to have to work again in their life, and probably generations of their family won't have to work," Rays Cy Young-winning left-hander David Price said. "It's scary."

More than a handful of pitchers have been hit in the head by line drives in the past year, including then-A's right-hander Brandon McCarthy in September. But Green points out that such incidents are still "relatively rare," occurring "once every 200,000-250,000 pitches in major-league baseball." Green said they've made sure each team's athletic training staff is ready to quickly respond to a "catastrophic" situation.

"You might go through your entire career as an athletic trainer and never see one of these," Green said. "But you have to be prepared as if it could happen every single pitch."

Rays lefty Matt Moore said it's "the scariest part about this game," though he acknowledges it's an inherent risk every pitcher takes when he steps on the mound. Moore, the Rays' player rep, says an overwhelming number of pitchers would be open to wearing some sort of protective headgear, suggesting a padded cap similar to the Elmer Fudd hats worn during colder weather.

"Being a person who has had line drives very close to my head and taken line drives off the body, I don't want to be laying there on my back wondering what if I would have worn something," Moore said, "or what if I could have worn something."

Wright said pitchers could wear helmets, much like first- and third-base coaches, but he is willing to try anything. Green said, as of now, there has been no talk of using helmets or ear flaps, and that they're focused on what would fit within the existing New Era caps. If a pitcher wanted to try one on his own, it would have to be approved by MLB, he said. Evoshield CEO Bob Pinckney, whose company already provides protective gear in baseball, said "there's no fast and easy solution."

McCarthy, who had to have surgery after suffering a fractured skull and an epidural hemorrhage after getting struck in September, is still dealing with the impact of his injury. He had a seizure this month while eating dinner with his wife.

But McCarthy, now with the Diamondbacks, has said the chances are "probably good" there will eventually be something made to protect pitchers. "It's just a matter of when, not if," he said.

Happ hopes so. Until then, he is eager to get back on the mound again, optimistic he'll be "worry-free" of anything like that happening again. "That's ugly to see, and nobody wants to go through that or see someone go through that," Happ said. "But, at the same time, I just don't know if there's an answer for it."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com.

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