Alarming as the incident may have been Tuesday, no one at Tropicana Field, not least J.A. Happ, was prepared Wednesday to embrace the concept of head protection for pitchers.
Major League Baseball intensified a search for headgear last fall, when Brandon McCarthy, then of the Oakland A’s and now with the Arizona Diamondbacks, required life-saving brain surgery in September after being hit in the head by a line drive.
One idea is to insert a light material such as Kevlar into the lining of caps to protect the temple area. Another is to adapt the batting helmet.
Baseball had test data on four padded caps in the winter from two companies, EvoShield and Unequal Technologies. None of the four was found to provide adequate protection, ESPN reported in March, against the type of liner that struck Happ flush in the head Tuesday.
A spokesman for MLB this week said companies have been invited to come back with more prototypes.
“To be honest, it’s not something I’ve really thought about,” Happ said. “Most pitchers have some head whip. That’s why it’s difficult to find a hat [that would stay snug.]”
Jays bullpen coach Pat Hentgen, formerly a Cy Young Award winner with the Blue Jays, evoked hints of the NHL visor debate. Struck by batted balls a half-dozen times himself, though never in the head, Hentgen suggested pitchers be given the option to wear a hard hat or a regular cap.
Happ suffered a small fracture in a bone behind his ear and a laceration in the left ear when Brandon Jennings’s liner ricocheted off him. The Blue Jays left-hander also incurred a knee injury of undetermined severity on the play.
Many long-time baseball observers questioned Wednesday described the incident as the most grievous they’ve witnessed.
“I just remember releasing the ball, I don’t remember seeing it, just an immediate loud ringing in my ear, then pressure by my ear, I was on the ground, and that was kind of it,” said Happ, 30. “I was very fortunate.”
He stayed overnight at a local hospital for tests and observation. Jays manager John Gibbons visited him after game and was surprised to find him alert.
“It was scary, very bad,” Gibbons said. “He got very lucky. …[Baseball] definitely takes a back seat. That’s life. Baseball is a game, it’s a big business but a game, it’s entertainment.”
Happ called his mother, Sue, from the ambulance on the way to the hospital to assure her, and soon thereafter received a much-appreciated flood of support himself from the “baseball community,” through direct messages and social media.
Jennings wouldn’t speak with reporters after the game but said Wednesday it had been a “scary situation.”
He wanted to see Happ in person, and sought him out.
“He wished me the best and a quick recovery,” the Jays pitcher said. “Obviously, something like that isn’t intentional. I let him know that I appreciate him coming over. It was a scary moment for him, too, I’m sure.”
After Tuesday’s game, several fellow pitchers, including Brandon Morrow and Steve Delabar, said they would refuse to watch a video replay. Asked if he had seen it, Happ answered in the affirmative.
“I thought I made a decent pitch,” he said, drawing laughter from the room.
The Blue Jays placed Happ on the disabled list Wednesday.
The CT scan and other tests showed no head damage other than the fracture, he said. Doctors told him he did not suffer a concussion.
Happ received further good news. After getting his right knee examined, it was found that the pitcher only suffered a sprain, requiring treatment and not surgery.
Happ expressed a wish to return “as soon as possible,” while conceding he won’t know about the fear factor until back on the mound in a game situation.
Tampa manager Joe Maddon said: “Fortunately or unfortunately, it’s going to be pretty much forgotten after several days unless it would happen again. That’s one of the beauties of the built-in mechanism as human beings, that we’re able to forget moments like that. We just move on, because we’ve got to move on.”