NEW YORK -- It is the worst nightmare of both the pitcher and the hitter, the ball that is hit so hard there is simply no time to duck, no time to react, no chance for the elemental reflex of self-preservation.
It happened in the third inning of Saturday's Yankees-Indians game, and for several heart-stopping, breath-holding minutes, it was easy to imagine that the worst thing that could happen on a baseball field had just happened, in full view of 46,000 spectators.
Cleveland right-hander David Huff threw a pitch to Alex Rodriguez, and before either of them could possibly have known what was happening, the ball was back in the pitcher's face, smacking with a THWACK! off Huff's left temple that must have been audible in the remotest sections of the ballpark.
Huff, a 25-year-old in his second big-league season, fell face down and motionless on the pitcher's mound. Rodriguez, reacting with a hitter's instinct, barreled around first base and into second. Nick Swisher, on second base, came around to score. The baseball, ricocheting as sharply as if it had hit concrete, wound up in right field.
And the hearts of 46,000 people leaped into 46,000 throats as a crowd of teammates, trainers and paramedics rushed to the mound and the fallen pitcher.
Rarely has Yankee Stadium been as quiet as it was at that moment and rarely has a ballgame there suddenly seemed so unimportant. As the medical staff worked over Huff, who did not move for what seemed like hours, Rodriguez and Swisher dropped to their knees, their eyes focused on the ground.
A cart was driven to the mound, a rigid stretcher produced, and the pitcher turned over and gingerly placed upon the board, his head, neck and body stabilized with straps. And then, the sight everyone seemed to be waiting for -- a thumbs-up from the man being carted off the field, at which point the stadium took a deep and audible breath.
"You're frightened for him," Joe Girardi said. "We all know how hard a baseball is and it comes off the bat at a high velocity. You don't see a ton of it but it just scares you to death."
Huff was taken to an ambulance waiting by the service gate beyond the left-center field fence and rushed to New York Presbyterian Hospital, where a CT scan revealed no neurological damage. The pitcher was kept briefly for observation and then sent back to Yankee Stadium.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez, who was visibly affected by the incident, left the ballpark immediately after the game and called a Yankees publicist from his car for the location of the hospital, hoping to visit Huff before he was released.
Learning that Huff was on his way back to the ballpark, Rodriguez was given the player's cellphone number and was trying to reach him Saturday night.
"Your heart stops. You want so badly to take it back," Rodriguez said in a statement relayed through Jason Zillo, a Yankees publicist. "You're scared. You think of him, you think of his family. You think of a million other places that the ball could have gone, other than where it did. Why there?
"I mean, we're playing a game. A game. I know it's a business, too, but to all of us, playing it should always be a game first, and when something like that happens right in front of your eyes it makes you think long and hard about things much bigger than throwing or hitting a baseball or running around the bases for a few hours a day. I'm so thankful that he's going to be OK."
Huff was not available in the clubhouse after the game but according to teammates was sporting a golf-ball sized knot at the point of impact on his left temple. "It happened so quick, he hit the ball so hard," said Indians catcher Lou Marson, who had a clear view of it from behind the plate. "When I got out there, he wasn't moving or saying anything, but by the time the training staff got to him, he was talking and he seemed to be OK. It was great to see him actually move and know that everything was all right."
According to the Indians, Huff never lost consciousness, nor did he suffer any memory loss as a result of the blow. "He doesn't have any concussive symptoms right now," said Cleveland manager Manny Acta, "but we'll see how he feels tomorrow."
"That's always your fear as a pitcher," said CC Sabathia. "I could hear the impact in the dugout. It was pretty loud. It's tough to see something like that but it's part of the game and you got to keep playing."