ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The call from catcher J.P. Arencibia was for a fastball down and away. J.A. Happ was down in the count 3-1 to Desmond Jennings with runners on second and third, came set from the stretch and unleashed a 91 m.p.h. two-seamer. All in all it wasn’t a terribly located pitch.
The next thing the Toronto Blue Jays left-hander remembers is a loud ringing in his ear. He was down on the pitching mound. And there was pressure. He cupped his ear and blood streamed onto his hand. It took a few seconds before he realized what had happened — a line drive had struck him on the left ear.
There were people around him, assistant trainer Mike Frostad tending to him with a towel, Munenori Kawasaki, Brett Lawrie, and Maicer Izturis to one side, Arencibia and John Gibbons on the other. Then came head trainer George Poulis, Tampa Bay Rays counterpart Ron Porterfield and team physician Dr. Michael Reilly. Paramedics jumped in. His right knee throbbed. How bad is this, Happ wondered.
“I felt a lot of pressure on my ear, that’s why I was holding it, I looked down and saw some blood on my hand, so I wasn’t sure,” Happ recalled Wednesday afternoon of his frightening injury the night before. “Obviously with the Brandon McCarthy injury last year, this type of thing is scary, you never know. But the paramedics and our trainers did a great job, they kept me comfortable and kept me calmed down.”
That a mere 21 hours after it happened the 30-year-old was able to recall the details of such a visually jarring incident that was the talk of the baseball world Wednesday bordered on miraculous.
Happ suffered fracture in the skull behind his left ear, needed eight stitches to close the gash, and appeared to be free of any post-concussion issues. In fact, the worst damage may very well be to his right knee, which twisted under his weight as he crumpled to the ground and was stiff and unstable.
Tests later Wednesday revealed a sprain that won’t require surgery, the team said. There was no timeline for his return.
On the field after impact, Happ quickly regained coherence and was able to talk with those around him. Within 10 minutes or so he was on a stretcher being carted off the field and placed into an ambulance bound for Bayfront Medical Center.
En route a paramedic dialed Happ’s mother Sue and held the cellphone to his ear.
“I told my mom I was OK and I told her to go ahead and call everybody,” said Happ. “I didn’t really have the time. She was definitely relieved and glad to hear my voice.”
Once at hospital, Happ was run through a series of tests, checking for any pressure on the brain that would require surgery the way McCarthy, the Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander but then with the Oakland Athletics, did last year.
At the same time, the Blue Jays continued to play the Rays at Tropicana Field, worried about their teammate, continually checking with Poulis for an update, any update, on Happ. Even after another stirring comeback resulted in a 6-4 win, the clubhouse was understandably sombre afterwards.
“The first thing I did when I came in was walk into the training room and ask if we had any news yet,” recalled Arencibia. “First thing I did when I got to the hotel was text him and tell him I was praying for him.”
To his surprise, Happ responded. The tests to that point suggested he had avoided serious damage.
“He was able to tell me he was OK, had a cut on his ear, a contusion behind his ear as well,” recalled Arencibia. “First him responding to me was already a positive and to be able to hear that it was just that is definitely a blessing.”
Happ tried to sleep in the hospital but couldn’t. Mostly he just laid there. Eventually he watched replay of the incident.
“I thought I made a decent pitch, I was frustrated,” he said with a smile.
Around noon Wednesday he was discharged from hospital with instructions to report back on any changes in his condition. He’s likely to remain in St. Petersburg, with travel for now likely out of the question.
“I’m not sure I’m completely in the clear, but it looks from everything — CT scans of the brain and the neck and spine and everything, skull — it looks pretty good. So I don’t think there’s a ton of concern. Obviously, if the symptoms change, I need to let them know, but I think they’re pretty confident that things will be fine.”
The Blue Jays placed him on the disabled list soon after, purchasing the contract of Edgar Gonzalez from triple-A Buffalo to cover in the bullpen while they sorted through the rotation.
Later he checked in with his teammates in the Blue Jays clubhouse.
“He’s a great teammate, these guys all love him,” said Gibbons. “I’m sure the guys on the other side will be glad to see him. It’s a tough moment for them, too. … It makes everybody feel good.”
Right before Happ held an eight-minute news conference in an auxiliary locker-room at 5 p.m., Jennings met him outside the Blue Jays clubhouse. The sophomore outfielder had been trying to reach him, a phone call was missed, because he wanted to apologize.
“He just wished me the best, and hoped for a quick recovery,” said Happ. “Obviously something like that is never intentional, I let him know that I knew that, and I appreciated him coming over. That’s a scary thing on his end, too, I’m sure. I appreciated him doing that.”
Jennings felt better after the fact, too, relieved Happ looked healthy enough to pitch.
Happ then limped into his availability, walked gingerly up three steps to the podium and publicly recounted his ordeal.
“I feel very fortunate. I would like to say too that the whole baseball community has been unbelievable with the messages I’m receiving, the things people are saying and all the prayers, I really think that helped. It looks like I moved just a little bit, I don’t remember doing that, but it looks like just enough that it must have caught me in a better spot. I got some stitches and there’s a fracture in the bone in my skull behind my ear. But it’s not serious or threatening, we’ll let those heal.”
At this point when he comes back is unclear.
“I need to talk to the doctor tonight about the knee, but if that checks out fine, I don’t know a timetable but I’d obviously like to be back as soon as possible. From what I understand, the skull will kind of heal on its own so it shouldn’t be a thing that’s too much of a setback. I’m just hoping and continuing to pray that the knee’s intact.”
How does the knee feel?
“Just tight and doesn’t want to bend or move too much for me. It is a little bit swollen. It may just be tight. It may just be a little sprain. That’s what we’re hoping.”
Is it stable?
“It wasn’t as stable as we would’ve liked last night. But we’ll have to see what the doctor says tonight.”
A sprain may have been the best possible news for his knee after a harrowing 27 hours.