June 20, 2013

Pitcher's nightmare: line drive to the head

While the possibility of tragedy exists, players are divided whether more safety is needed.

By RICK FREEMAN/The Associated Press

Cleveland Indians reliever Vinnie Pestano has a recurring dream. A batter hits a line drive up the middle and it's screaming toward his head.

Jose Lobaton, Kelly Johnson, Alex Cobb
click image to enlarge

Alex Cobb of the Tampa Bay Rays was the latest pitcher to go down from a line drive up the middle. The odds are low that it would happen, but that doesn’t lessen the impact.

The Associated Press

He wakes just before impact.

The real thing is a nightmare scenario that happens a couple of times a season in the major leagues.

"Guys are bigger now and hitting the ball harder, and we're throwing the ball harder and when a guy hits one right on the screws bad things can happen," Pestano said.

Most recently it happened Saturday night in Florida.

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Alex Cobb took a nasty shot off his head from the bat of Eric Hosmer of Kansas City. That was the second time this season everyone at a Rays game held their breath. In early May, on the same mound, Toronto left-hander J.A. Happ took a nasty shot off his head.

Happ won't return until July at the soonest. There's no timetable for Cobb though he's home from the hospital.

In the meantime, baseball is left to figure out how to protect pitchers before one gets hurt more seriously.

It's not just a player's health and livelihood at stake. Teams also lose money when their players are on the disabled list. While Major League Baseball has auditioned various equipment to protect pitchers, nothing has made the cut.

Any gear would have to stay in place during the violent, whole-body motion of pitching, not hinder its effectiveness, and of course effectively protect their heads in event of an impact.

"I really hope something gets done because it's time to act," Royals pitcher Bruce Chen said. "I know it will probably take a couple of years to get it done but let's do it. Too many guys are getting hurt."

Every pitcher knows any pitch could result in a ball flying 100 mph or more right back at his head. Not all of them agree that something must be done.

"No one's forcing you to play this game and we're not children," Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija said. "We're playing big league baseball with grown men, so that's the risk you take when you play."

Samardzija was a wide receiver at Notre Dame before he went into pro baseball, so he knows about danger in sports and is familiar with wearing a lot more protective equipment than he does on the mound.

He is adamantly against requiring pitchers to wear anything more than they do.

"Absolutely not. No. This game's been played the way it's been played for a long time," he said. "And when you sign up to play this game, no one's forcing you to play. No one's pulling you out there to do it. You're choosing to do it. It's what we love to do and obviously when you choose to play you take the risks that come with doing it."

Each major league game has at least a couple hundred pitches thrown. And there are more than 2,500 games a season. Out of all those games and all those pitches, no more than a few have a pitcher getting hit in the head.

The rarity is such that most pitchers put it out of mind -- out of necessity, if nothing else.

"If you think about it while you're out there, you're not going to get your job done," said Chris Jakubauskas, who was hit by a line drive in 2010.

He sustained a concussion but recovered and is now in the Cleveland minor league organization. He has more immediate problems than something that statistically improbable.

(Continued on page 2)

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