Injury to Huff shows pitchers vulnerable to line drives to the mound

Published 12:56 am Tuesday, June 1, 2010

NEW YORK — CC Sabathia watched in horror as Cleveland Indians pitcher David Huff lay motionless on the mound after being nailed in the head by Alex Rodriguez’s line drive.

“That’s always your fear as a pitcher,” Sabathia said.

A half-inning after Huff was carted off the field, a grounder up the middle caromed off the New York Yankees ace’s foot and rolled to the grass in right field for a hit. Perhaps ruffled by the succession of plays, Sabathia went from breezing through the Indians’ limp lineup to losing the strike zone and giving up three runs in the inning.

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Working 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate, where a batter can send balls screaming toward the mound at speeds in excess of 100 mph, the pitcher might be the most vulnerable player on the field.

Pitchers are rarely hit in the head, but when it happens it unfolds in a terrifying instant.

“You never hear a baseball stadium that quiet,” said Pirates right-hander Chris Jakubauskas, struck near the ear by Lance Berkman’s liner April 25 and still out with a concussion. “When you can hear a pin drop in a stadium, it’s usually not a good thing.”

Several hours after being rushed to the hospital strapped to a board and wearing a neck brace, Huff returned to Yankee Stadium and was seen laughing in the clubhouse. He hopes to make his next start.

Others have not been so lucky.

Last season, the Dodgers lost Hiroki Kuroda for several weeks with a concussion and San Francisco Giants rookie Joe Martinez was out four months after Mike Cameron’s liner gave the righty a concussion and three hairline fractures in his skull.

In 2000, Boston righty Bryce Florie’s vision was impaired when he was tagged in the right eye. He tried to make a comeback the next season but never succeeded as a big league pitcher again.

Herb Score, the Indians’ American League Rookie of Year winner in 1955, never fulfilled his promise after being hit by a shot off the bat of a New York Yankee that broke several bones in his face in 1957. Fearful of getting hit again, Score altered his motion and was never the same.

“If you think it’s going to be difficult to come back, I don’t think you’ll ever be able to come back,” Kuroda said Saturday night.

Minnesota’s Nick Blackburn, who was struck in the face by a drive off Bobby Abreu’s bat in 2008, said the key to getting back on the mound is having a short memory.

“You can’t really go out and be scared and be worried and thinking about that,” Blackburn said in Minneapolis after Huff was hit. “But it’s not easy to not think about it. Especially after I got hit, it was always in the back of my mind. You can’t let that be your main focus or you won’t be able to do your job.”

He added: “The more you get out there, the easier it gets.”

Jakubauskas, who’s just beginning to throw bullpen sessions without feeling any effects of the concussion, is eager to step on the rubber again.

“It took me until I was 31 years old to get hit in the head, and I’ve been playing for how long?” Jakubauskas said. “When you look at it like that, the odds are pretty slim.”

Jakubauskas saw a replay of Huff getting hit.

“I kind of glanced at it. I really didn’t focus on it too much because I really didn’t want to see it. I was in the training room and I heard, ’Ohhh,”’ he said.

“You notice it more as you go up through the higher levels. Guys hit a lot more things back through the box in the big leagues,” he said. “I didn’t lose consciousness at all. Unfortunately, I didn’t. So I felt everything that came with that.”

He remembers it all quite clearly.

“Once you get past the initial shock of, ’Oh, my gosh! This hurts!’ you let everybody know you’re OK. My parents were still looking, so I made sure I did something,” Jakubauskas said. “When they first got out to me, they asked me how if I had any neck pain, I said, ’I’m dizzy and my head’s killing me. I just wanted to lay there. I didn’t want to get up.”

There’s little a pitcher can do to get out of the way of a ball that takes several tenths of a second — yes, tenths — to zoom in on them. Good windups help a pitcher become square to the plate after hurling a 90 mph pitch and be in proper fielding position, but sometimes there is no time to get the glove up anyway. Huff said he had no time to react.

Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt has avoided three close calls with liners at his head this year.

“I don’t even think about it,” he said. “Honestly, if a guy hits the ball up the middle, you think of it as an advantage. ’I’m going to get it and it’s an out.’ I’ve had a lot of stuff hit up the middle against me the last couple of years. I’m always blocking stuff. A lot of times when you leave the ball over the plate it’s going to happen.”

Unlike the debate over banning metal bats — they create even faster line drives — in youth leagues and high school, there is not much major league baseball can do to protect pitchers.

“You really don’t want to see a pitcher with a hockey mask pitching in the game, or a screen in front of him,” Indians manager Manny Acta said. “The game has been played for almost 200 years that way, and you don’t want to make those drastic changes.”