This is the third time in the last several months of Major League baseball regular-season play that a pitcher’s head got in the way of a hardball struck by a bat.
Right-hander Alex Cobb had just delivered a pitch to Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer Saturday night in Tampa Bay in the fifth inning of his Rays’ contest against the visitors when it came whizzing back for a direct hit on his right ear. The line-drive smash was apparently measured on a radar gun normally used to measure a pitcher’s throwing velocity, traveling at 102 mph as it rocketed the 60 feet, 6 inches back at him.
As is common in such situations from the brutality of the impact Cobb fell to the ground as if shot with a rifle. Cobb rolled over and held his head.
Yet less than 24 hours later the 25-year-old, third-year pitcher, was being released from the hospital, with the only sign of damage a minor headache–we think. Cobb will be monitored for concussion symptoms for seven days as a cautionary measure.
Cobb has been one of the best pitchers on the Tampa Bay staff this season. He has a 6-2 record with a 3.01 earned average after pitching in the majors just long enough in 2011 to go 3-2 and following up with an 11-9 mark in 2012. Cobb is one of the team’s prized properties, but Sunday morning as he woke up he is lucky he is not being forced into retirement, long-term rehabilitation–or even worse.
Last September 5, Brandon McCarthy of the Oakland A’s was hit in the head by a struck ball and missed the rest of the season. In May, Toronto Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ was also smashed in the head by a hard hit ball. Happ did suffer a fractured skull, but peculiarly he more severely injured his knee in the fall. He is rehabbing that, not his head. And now Cobb. When you are playing baseball, the rule that governs the sport of boxing is in effect,–protect yourself at all times.
However, pitchers can’t always do that. Usually, when they complete their motion, they are off-balance, their bodies slung to one side of the mound or another after finishing the unnatural act of throwing a baseball as hard as they can. Some pitchers have demonstrated lightning fast reactions when a batter has connected with a ball that comes zooming back at them. But as we have seen in these three instances, that does not always work.
It is truly amazing that since Major League baseball got started in 1876 that no pitcher has ever been killed by a line drive in a situation mirroring these that McCarthy, Happ and Cobb faced. It really is.
Having watched each of these plays on tape, sometimes in slow motion, I gasp and my stomach clenches each time the ball smacks against one of the pitchers’ skulls. All three of these players were incredibly lucky. An inch here, an inch there on the point of contact from the flying ball, and the outcome may have been far more distressing.
During this latest incident in the middle of a game that Kansas City won 5-3, Cobb never lost consciousness. Through the marvel of social media he began tweeting only hours later that he was OK. Indeed, after what seemed to be a relatively short period of observation he was shipped out of the hospital and told to go home.
Three times since September seems to be a lot of times for such scares. At the least the fortunate trio that was not hurt worse has focused the issue for other pitchers who may have been cocky in thinking it would never happen to them. It took the better part of a century of Major League play for batting helmets to become mandatory. Goalies used to play without a mask in hockey and hockey players competed without helmets and visors. Football players wore no facebars or mesh.
There are sporting goods manufacturers working feverishly to design some type of headgear that will both protect pitchers on the mound when the hardball comes hurtling at them and that they also will be comfortable wearing.
Let’s hope the invention reaches the mound before the next ball reaches a hurler’s head.