There are absolute scary moments in every sport where the goal of winning becomes secondary, when everyone in a stadium, arena or ballpark bonds to share a common hope and offer prayers for health and recovery. Such was the case on Tuesday night at Tropicana Field when Jays' pitcher J.A. Happ was felled by a line drive off the bat of Dersmond Jennings in the second inning of an eventual Jays 6-4 victory. The shots of both dugouts and the fans was compelling, hand-wringing television.
Happ lay face down and motionless for a seeming eternity as two Rays runners scored and Jennings ended up on third base. It was a scary, silent 10 minutes as medical personnel hurried out and attempted to stabilize the stricken lefthander. As Happ was taken from the field on a stretcher, he gave a hand wave that allowed all that were there or watching on television to finally take a deep breath.
On Wednesday morning the Jays offered an encouraging update to Happ's medical condition. After spending the night in a St. Petersburg Hospital, undergoing tests for injuries suffered to the left side of his face, the Jays announced Happ was scheduled to be released later in the day after head trauma and a laceration to his left ear. It is likely that the 29-year-old will have to be placed on a disabled list, either seven days for possible concussion, or 15 days, in which case he would miss a minimum of two starts. But he will more than likely miss at least his next outing.
The concern when the dust settles following serious injuries always becom, “What can be done to better protect the athletes?” In the case of baseball pitchers, ever since the game was invented by Alexander Cartwright, pitchers have been vulnerable to hot shots back through the middle. But as players have become bigger and stronger as pitchers throw harder and harder, the danger grows.
The bottom line is that not much can be done short of pitching from behind a screen (which will never happen) or when technology becomes so good that a mini force-field could enshroud and envelop every pitcher's head from an attachment to the cap.
In the meantime, since last summer baseball has been working on a slight forward movement towards protecting pitchers. They are hoping to add a Kevlar insert to the lining of pitchers' baseball hats by next season. Kevlar is a fabric that is used in bulletproof vests and Olympic Stadium retractable roofs. It has not been accepted or approved by the players, but incidents like Happ's will only advance the likelihood. But the bottom line is that wouldn't have prevented a situation like Happ's where he turned his head instictively and was hit in the side of the face, not on the cap. And there is no way that pitchers will ever walk to the mound with earflaps, musch as many hockey players resist visors.
Last year, A's righthander Brandon McCarthy suffered a fractured skull on a similar type injury to Happ and is now back pitching for the Diamondbacks, signing as a free agent. McCarthy's comeback was awe inspiring because of his Twitter updates that showed a tremendous sense of humour and a joy of life during the painful process of recovery. McCarthy's handling of his misfortune was inspiring.
The Jays have not had that many memorable head shots for pitchers in the club's 37 seasons, but pitchers being hit by hot comebackers is fairly common. Recall Roy Halladay suffering a fractured tibia in Texas on a ball hit by Kevin Mench. Players are taught from a young age to drive the ball up the middle and pitchers are taught from a young age to keep the ball away from strong hitters.
There are those that will want a committee to study how to better protect the game's pitchers, but it's a question with no real answers. Balance in the delivery and follow through and focus, awareness and athleticism are all factors in self-preservation, but it's an accident and even though it takes your breath away, line drives off pitchers will continue to happen.
One change that might be made in the enterest of everyone involved is that when a pitcher is obviously stricken, as was Happ, that umpires call an immediate halto to play and consider a ground-rul double with runners advancing a maximum two bases or less depending on the umpires judgment so that immediate attention can be paid to the injured player. Even Jernnings would have felt better.
In the meantime, all we can do is pray for a speedy return to health for J.A. Happ, that he can soon return to the mound and to join his teammates doing what he loves to do.