The ball rocketed off the bat like a missile at his head and J.A. Happ had perhaps a second to react. No one is that fast and Happ couldn’t duck or cover up quickly enough.
In a dangerously frightening moment Tuesday night, the Toronto Blue Jays pitcher was felled by a line drive clouted by Tampa Bay’s Desmond Jennings, dropping to the ground at Tropicana Field as if shot.
It was a stunning thing to witness. The ball hit Happ’s head so hard that it bounded into foul territory on the right side as if caroming off a much harder surface like an outfield wall. The shock of the scene silenced the fans. Jennings ran all of the way to third base for a triple and then medical personnel ran onto the field to treat the stricken Happ.
This is one of the great hazards of baseball. Once the pitcher unleashes his throw to the plate he almost always lands in an off-balance position on his follow through, for a brief time leaving himself exposed to a 100 mph smash off the bat if the ball is hit in just such a way.
It is one of the miracles of the sport, with the National League going since 1876 and the American League in business since 1901, that no pitcher has ever been killed by a batted ball in this manner during a game. Standing just 60 feet away a full-swing connection to the ball propels it out faster than it came in.
The only on-field fatality in a Major League baseball game came on a pitched ball by Carl Mays of the New York Yankees in 1920 that hit the Cleveland Indians‘ shortstop Ray Chapman in the head. There have been numerous concussions and hospitalizations over the decades, but Chapman is the only batter who died from injuries incurred from a pitch.
It is surprising that more pitchers are not harmed by batted balls and it is only because of God’s good grace that none have been killed from the impact of a swatted ball. Only last season Brandon McCarthy, then throwing for the Oakland A’s, was the victim of a scenario very similar to Happ’s.
McCarthy was taken to the hospital and it was later announced that if he had not been treated swiftly swelling could have resulted in his death. McCarthy recovered and this year is pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks. When he reported to spring training McCarthy admitted he had times when he wondered if he would ever be able to play again. Being smacked in the head by the line drive led most people to wonder if he would be able to walk, talk and be normal again.
Now Happ is in the same situation. The first reports from the Bayfront Medical Center are that he is in stable condition.
The play happened during the second inning of Toronto’s 6-4 win over the Rays. As soon as trainers examined Happ, who lay on his left side covering his head with his gloved right hand and bare left hand, they called for a stretcher. Happ was gently laid on the stretcher bed, strapped down, and had his head and neck stablized by straps.
Happ, 30, is in his seventh year in the majors. A southpaw, he is 2-2 this season and his lifetime record is 37-37.
The sight of Happ being struck stole the breath away. One minute a simple ball game was being played, the next a player’s life was threatened. The horror of the accident was powerful, but with good fortune, in the earliest stages of this accident, immediate medical attention may have helped prevent worse damage.
The next step is to hope for Happ to get well.