Especially for a pitcher, keeping your head in the game is not supposed to mean to the point where your head nearly gets taken off.
Oakland Athletics righthander Brandon McCarthy throws Los Angeles Angels hitter Erick Aybar a 91 mph cutter practically down the chute in the top of the fourth Wednesday night. Aybar hits it on the proverbial screws. The ball slams into the right side of McCarthy’s head like a bullet, knocking the righthander down on the mound.
Herb Score and Gil McDougald, call your offices?
Aybar’s liner was hit so hard and fast McCarthy had no chance to get his glove up to knock the ball down. The ball hit McCarthy above his right ear, seemingly, as he was in his follow-through. He was knocked around and bent over at the waist on immediate impact before crumpling to the mound, his back to the plate, falling over onto his haunches and finally into a sprawling heap.
The entire population of the Oakland Coliseum, including those milling in the Angels’ dugout, cried in horror as McCarthy hit the deck and Aybar ran over first base following the putout. Believe it or not, there was a putout on the otherwise sickening play. The ball caromed off McCarthy’s head toward third base, where Josh Donaldson fielded it on the run and threw Aybar out.
Then, Donaldson ambled over to join the rest of his infield plus both the Oakland and Los Angeles trainers around McCarthy, who managed to sit up and run his hands through his hair, obviously trying to salve pain. Aybar lingered near and then forward of first base. He looked for all the world to see like a man who’d had a gun blast off in his hands completely by accident and seen a respected neighbour take the bullet.
Alberto Callaspo, the Angels’ on-deck hitter, squatted in the on-deck circle, leaning forward on his bat, shaking his head helplessly. Aybar returned to his dugout in due course and let his head fall into his hands in utter disbelief, promising himself to check on McCarthy as soon as possible.
He was fortunate that A’s fans these days are a civil bunch when it comes to accidents in honest play. When McDougald rifled his liner off Score’s eye in May 1957, the Yankee jack-of-all-trades was hammered with fan abuse enough. Never mind that McDougald had a gentlemanly reputation parallel to Score’s. (“It was,” New York Journal-American writer Til Ferdenzi wrote, “like Sir Lancelot felling Sir Lancelot.”)
The abuse didn’t stop the heartsick McDougald from calling the hospital constantly, even wresting from staffers the direct line to Score’s doctor, in order to keep track of the fallen righthander. More than that, Score’s mother got McDougald on the phone to reassure him about her son, and about himself.
“You feel really bad,” Aybar said to reporters, as translated from his native Spanish. ”[McCarthy]’s a good guy. You never want to hit anybody over the head, and he’s a good guy. Hopefully everything turns out all right and, God-willing, that he gets better soon.”
This wasn’t even close to the way the Angels wanted to finish what they’d started earlier in the week and sweep the high-enough-flying A’s. It certainly wasn’t the way the A’s wanted to go down, if they had to go down to the Angels. “You try not to let it linger,” Oakland catcher Derek Norris said after the game, “but it’s human nature for it to. Your heart goes out to your teammate. You battle with them throughout the course of the season, but we try our best to motivate us to win it for Mac.”
When McCarthy managed to get up at last and walk off the field under his own power—he’ll be held in hospital overnight and miss the A’s trip to Seattle—the standing ovation also included everyone in the Coliseum and everyone in the Angels’ dugout.
McCarthy went down for the count with the A’s still very much in the game, trailing a mere 3-1. In fact, the two sides played shutout baseball from the fourth through the eighth innings. The Angels stranded a pair of one-out baserunners in the sixth and stranded super rookie Mike Trout (a two-out walk, a stolen base) an inning later, while going on to wreck a one-out walk (to Kendrys Morales) with a double play. The A’s best threat the rest of the way was first and third with one out in the seventh, before Angels reliever Nick Maronde celebrated birthday number 23 by punching out Coco Crisp and Sean Smith for the side.
It wasn’t until the ninth that someone got really frisky. Eight someones, to be precise, all wearing Angels silks. Peter Bourjos opened with a walk and took second on Aybar’s followup base hit, before Norris’s miscue in front of the plate let Callaspo load the pads on a bunt. Pinch-hitter Macier Izturis wrung a bases-loaded walk and, after Trout (uncharacteristically) struck out, Torii Hunter turned the merry-go-round back on with a base hit. Albert Pujols’s strikeout wasn’t exactly in vain, with Izturis stealing home on the front end of a double steal (Hunter taking second), before Morales grounded out for the side and a 7-1 lead that would hold with only a two-out single and a strand from the A’s in the bottom.
But you can’t exactly fault the A’s if their hearts might have fallen out of it just a little bit.
Bang, bang! Or, as one fan tweeted, presumably from the ballpark itself, “like the ball hitting the bat twice.”
Just a year earlier, Colorado’s Juan Nicasio took one on a liner by Ian Desmond. Nicasio was caught in the neck, suffering a fracture that kept him down for the rest of 2011. In 1998, Mike Mussina, then with the Baltimore Orioles, took a comebacker the hard way and subsequently admitted it he struggled “getting over the fear that every ball I threw, every ball that someone made contact with, was not coming back at me.”
One of McCarthy’s own relievers Wednesday night knows the feeling only too well. Pat Neshek took one in a college game. Steve Shields, a journeyman reliever in the late 1980s and early 1990s, got it twice—once when he was in the Red Sox system, and once as a Seattle Mariner: in his second appearance of 1987, Hall of Famer Kirby Pucket lined one off his cheek, breaking it and causing him to miss a month. He didn’t exactly pitch well on his return.
You don’t have to get it in the face to be taken down for any length of time—and even out. Now a popular Angels broadcaster, Mark Gubicza in 1996 was a veteran Kansas City righthander who took one off his left leg, suffering a fracture that caused him to miss the final half of his final Kansas City. Career essentially over, if you don’t count an aborted comeback bid with the Angels. Matt Clement’s career ended similarly: enjoying a career year with the 2005 Red Sox, he took a liner in the face from then-Tampa Bay outfielder Carl Crawford in July. He managed to make his next start, but the Crawford shot did to Clement what Mussina feared would happen to himself, and Clement was gone a year later.
Several generations earlier, Lou Brissie, the courageous Philadelphia Athletics lefthander, took a line shot off a leg from Ted Williams—on Opening Day, 1948. (Brissie had made his major league debut the previous September, in Yankee Stadium, on the day the Yankees honoured Babe Ruth.) What amplified the horror: the leg was the one Brissie begged military doctors to save, when they wanted to amputate, after it had been all but blown to bits in World War II battle. (Brissie needed 23 surgeries and a metal brace in order to even think about baseball, never mind impress A’s emperor Connie Mack with his courage.)
Brissie went down fast and Williams hustled over from first base to see if Brissie would be ok. “Dammit, Ted,” Brissie is said to have cracked, “why didn’t just pull the ball?”
It’s every pitcher’s worst nightmare. And not all of them handle it the way Lou Brissie and Herb Score did. “I talked to Gil and told him it was something that could happen to anyone,” Score would say in due course. “It’s just like a pitcher beaning a hitter. He didn’t mean it.” After missing the rest of the season recuperating, Score would lose his formidable arm—to faulty mechanics, by his own admission, after he tried coming back too soon from an elbow tear.
Retiring at thirty, when he was still somewhere about ten dimensions beyond the top of his game, Sandy Koufax admitted he was prompted in considerable part by the medical regimen he underwent to keep pitching with his arthritic elbow. “[T]o walk around with a constant upset stomach because of the pills and to be high half the time during a ballgame because you’re taking painkillers, I don’t want to have to do that.”
He didn’t have to say it. Phil Collier, a San Diego Tribune reporter, who sat on the story of Koufax’s final season for a year until Koufax himself announced his retirement, said it for him. “He took codeine before he pitched,” Collier once said. “Because of the codeine, it affected his reaction time. He was afraid sooner or later someone was going to hit him in the head with a line drive.”
It was hard not to be grateful that Brandon McCarthy wasn’t on anything but his own power when he went down. That may be the only thing about which we can be grateful on McCarthy’s behalf right now. But it was hard not to remember Koufax’s halting admission to suffering every pitcher’s worst nightmare when looking at the number on McCarthy’s back.