BOSTON — Kevin Pillar is no stranger to running into outfield walls, laying out for highlight reel catches, sliding headfirst into home plate at full speed, and willingly putting his body on the line to help his team win. But when he made a diving grab in the third inning of a game Saturday, landing on his right shoulder and barrel-rolling forward, he never thought he’d suffered one of the worst injuries of his major-league career, one expected to hold him out for a month-and-a-half.
“I knew something didn’t feel right. I didn’t know it was to the point where I wasn’t going to be able to play,” Pillar said. “I really just felt like I landed on my shoulder. My neck was a little stiff. It was something I felt like I could run up [to the clubhouse], have them move my neck around a little bit, and continue to play.”
Flash forward about an hour and Pillar was in a hospital emergency room with Blue Jays head athletic trainer Nikki Huffman, about to undergo X-rays and a CT scan. Pillar had suffered a grade 1-to-2 sternoclavicular joint sprain, an injury common in high-collision sports and motor vehicle accidents. Rarely seen on the baseball diamond, the injury is one that could have had a much more dire outcome than it did.
The SC joint is located where the collarbone attaches to the chest wall, putting it very close to some of the body’s most critical organs. Pillar sprained his joint anteriorly, resulting in only damage to ligaments and the joint capsule as his collarbone stretched forwards from his chest. If he had sprained it posteriorly — backwards towards his spine — it could have done life-threatening damage.
“That was actually an emergency situation,” Huffman said. “If those go backwards instead of forwards, it can be fatal. They can cut off your airway, they can cut off arteries, they can cut off nerves that go to your arm. So, it was a pretty emergent situation yesterday with him.”
Huffman was in the team’s training room when the injury happened and saw it play out on a television monitor. She knew immediately from the way Pillar landed and got up that he had likely done some damage, and as soon as she saw him grabbing his upper chest she rushed to meet him in the tunnel between the Blue Jays dugout and clubhouse. Pillar pulled down his jersey to show Huffman the area, which is when concern set in.
“You could see it just sticking out,” Huffman said of Pillar’s collarbone. “Any time there’s an injury there — it’s not like your finger’s a little dislocated and you just move it back in. You never mess with anything there. Because you can actually push on someone’s airway, their esophagus, or their arteries. You could injure him really badly if you mess with it or start yanking his arm around. You assume that [the sprain] is forward, but it’s always an emergency situation when you see a joint there that has any kind of compromise to it.”
Huffman and the Red Sox training staff worked together to get Pillar to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a hospital about five minutes away from Fenway Park, as quickly as possible. Medical imaging confirmed Pillar’s sprain was, fortunately, anterior. While he awaited the results in the hospital, the Blue Jays outfielder had plenty of time to learn about the injury he’d suffered, and reflect on the innocuous nature in which it occurred.
“It isn’t anything that stood out to me as any more aggressive than any other play I’ve made. I think it just really came down to how I landed,” Pillar said. “It’s a little unfortunate but it is part of the game.
“To be honest, I’ve been fairly fortunate with my style of play to be able to avoid serious injury. It’s something I’ll continue to do. I don’t ever think about the longevity. I just think about today — what I can do to help our team win. And sometimes stuff like this happens.”
Pillar will be in a sling for at least a week, and perhaps longer depending on how he recovers. He’ll be re-evaluated by the Blue Jays training staff in early August in order to determine next steps. Typical recovery timelines for injuries like his are up to six weeks, but vary depending on the individual.
Brass tacks — Pillar isn’t expected to be able to play again until much later in the season. For an athlete who has played 146 games or more each of the last three seasons, it will be an unusual experience.
“I’ve been able to stay fairly healthy, not only in my big-league career but in my minor-league career, college. I’ve been very fortunate to avoid serious injury where I couldn’t play,” Pillar said. “The fact that the season’s gotten away from us a little bit is going to make it easier for me as a competitor to sit back and allow this to heal — and do it properly.”
Pillar says the hardest part of the injury so far has been not being able to pick up his nine-month-old daughter, Kobie. Pillar and his wife, Amanda, were planning to spend the all-star break north of Toronto on a lake in Ontario’s Muskoka region. That getaway will go ahead as planned, with only some minor tweaks.
“My wife’s got two kids to take care of now,” Pillar said. “Me and the baby.”