Posted May 08, 2013

J.A. Happ’s scary injury brings to mind other pitchers hit by line drives

J.A. Happ
Juan Nicasio

Juan Nicasio suffered multiple serious injuries when he was hit by an Ian Desmond comebacker in 2011. (AP)

The line drive that drilled J.A. Happ in the head on Tuesday night was terrifying enough on its own. Its connection to similar incidents in baseball history was underscored (no pun intended) by the fact that it took place on the 56th anniversary of perhaps the most famous instance of a major league pitcher being struck by a batted ball. On May 7, 1957, the Indians’ Herb Score was hit in the face by a line drive off the bat of the Yankees’ Gil McDougald, and the promising young lefty’s career was never the same.

Signed for a $60,000 bonus in 1952 by Cy Slapnicka, the same Indians scout who had discovered Hall of Famer Bob Feller, Score reached the majors as a 21-year-old in 1955, and he quickly found success. He won AL Rookie of the Year honors on the strength of a 16-10 record, a 2.85 ERA and an MLB-high 245 strikeouts, the second-highest total by a southpaw since the Deadball Era (Hal Newhouser’s 275 in 1946 was first). Eight times he reached double digits in strikeouts that year, with a high of 16 K’s. He was even better the following season, going 20-9 with a 2.53 ERA, 263 strikeouts and five shutouts, the latter two marks both AL highs. This time around, he had 11 double-digit strikeout games.

Though he was battling a typically high walk rate (6.5 per nine) offset by a low hit rate, Score was off to a similarly dominant start in 1957 when he was felled by McDougald, the second batter of the game. As the New York Times‘ 2008 obituary of Score described it:

The baseball struck Score in the face, knocking him down and sending blood streaming from his right eye, nose and mouth.

Score never lost consciousness but had severe hemorrhaging in the eye and a swollen retina as well as a broken nose. He was carried off the field and spent three weeks in a hospital. His plight brought 10,000 letters with good wishes. People in his hometown, Lake Worth, Fla., sent him a 125-foot-long get-well telegram with 4,000 names, and a California man offered to donate an eye to him.

Score was sidelined for the rest of the season, his vision fuzzy and his depth perception impaired.

Score rejoined the Indians’ rotation in 1958, and after a rocky three-inning outing on Opening Day, he threw a complete game in his following start, and a three-hit shutout in his third turn. Elbow troubles limited him to just seven appearances and one start after April; a photo-driven feature in the May 26, 1958 issue of Sports Illustrated trumpeted that he “looks like the Score of old,” but by then he was already on the sidelines.

He returned the following year, but a comebacker shook him up; as teammate Bob Lemon described it, “He became mechanical. He wasn’t bringing it like he used to, not holding anything back.” Score made just five starts that year, and while he made 25 in 1959 and 22 in 1960, the magic was largely gone due to increasing control problems borne of mechanical changes. After 12 appearances in 1961-1962, he was done, though he went on to a 34-year career in the Indians TV and radio booth.

At this writing, Happ has been released from a St. Petersburg hospital, on crutches and with a bandage on his head. The Blue Jays say he suffered a head contusion and a laceration to his left ear, but fortunately, it sounds as though he escaped a concussion, eye injury or skull fracture.

Unfortunately, not every pitcher hit by a comebacker was so lucky. Here’s a look back at a few of the more notable ones besides Score. The list is far from complete, and the pitchers are listed chronologically.

Dizzy Dean, July 7, 1937: The ace of the Cardinals was amid a six-year stretch as one of the game’s top pitchers and drawing cards; he had won a world championship and an MVP award in 1934, and finished as runner-up in the MVP voting in each of the following two seasons. Taking the mound as the NL starter in the 1937 All-Star Game, he was hit in the foot by an Earl Averill line drive, the last batter he was scheduled to face in his three-inning stint. Upon being removed, he was told his left big toe was fractured, whereupon he’s said to have responded, “”Fractured, hell, the damn thing’s broken!”

He came back from the injury just two weeks later, but alterations in his mechanics led to shoulder and elbow problems that cost him the zip on his fastball. Sold to the Cubs in April 1938, he threw just 225 innings with diminishing returns over the next three seasons, after which he was limited to two one-game comebacks. Nonetheless, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953.

Bryce Florie, Sept. 8, 2000: A 30-year-old journeyman reliever pitching for the Red Sox, Florie was struck in the face by a line drive off the bat of the Yankees’ Ryan Thompson. The blow bloodied him, fractured his right cheekbone and orbital socket and damaged his retina; he underwent emergency surgery to release pressure on the eye. He didn’t pitch the rest of the year, and the Red Sox expressed concern about his vision and reaction time while he was pitching batting practice the following spring. Though he climbed through the minors and returned to the majors, the team sent him to a psychologist after he was grazed on the wrist by another batted ball in his third appearance. He made just seven appearances for the team in all, refused to go on the disabled list when he said he wasn’t hurt and was released at the end of July. Though he persisted in the minors through 2007, he never made it back to the majors.

Roy Halladay, July 8, 2005: With a 12-4 record and a 2.33 ERA, Halladay appeared to be headed toward a second Cy Young award when he suffered a broken left tibia due to a Kevin Mench liner. Originally expected to miss four to six weeks, he was slow to heal, and the Blue Jays wisely shut him down for the remainder of the season.

Juan Nicasio, August 5, 2011: In just his 13th major league start, Nicasio sustained one of the most terrifying batted-ball injuries in memory when he was hit in the head by an Ian Desmond line drive, and then hit his head on the mound. He suffered a fractured skull, bleeding on the brain and a fractured C1 vertebra for which doctors had to implant a permanent metal plate. Remarkably, he was back in the majors the following April, but made just 11 starts before needing microfracture surgery on his left knee.

Brandon McCarthy, Sept. 5, 2012: After battling numerous injuries earlier in his career, McCarthy was in the midst of his second strong season in a row with the A’s before an Erick Aybar line drive struck him in the head. He suffered a fractured skull and needed emergency surgery to stabilize the break and to alleviate an epidural hemorrhage. Fortunately, he made a quick recovery, nearly working his way back to the mound during Oakland’s playoff run. Over the winter, he signed a two-year deal with the Diamondbacks, and after struggling early, made his first quality start on Tuesday night, just hours after Happ’s injury.

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