GLENDALE, Ariz. -- About an hour after a line drive hit Clayton Kershaw in the mouth, crushed one of his teeth and chipped a chunk off another one in a spring training game last week, the Los Angeles Dodgers were able to make it into a joke.
Catcher A.J. Ellis quipped that Kershaw's 2014 Gold Glove was a "sham," because he failed to make the catch. Manager Don Mattingly wouldn't bite when a TV reporter asked about Kershaw's bravery for staying in the game, with Mattingly jokingly calling Kershaw "Old Blood and Guts."
Now, imagine for a moment if Kershaw hadn't gotten his 93-mph fastball inside quite as far on the bat of Oakland's Andy Parrino and cracked the wood, taking most of the force out of the ball on its return flight. Imagine if Parrino had been able to pull his hands in just a centimeter or two and gotten the barrel of the bat on the ball.
What then? The events of that March 20 spring training game at Hohokam Stadium would have been remembered in an entirely different light by Los Angeles Dodgers fans, or really, by anyone who cares about the safety of players.
The Dodgers have three pitchers in their camp this spring who either suffered serious injuries as a result of being struck in the head by a batted ball or narrowly dodged catastrophe. If such scary episodes are becoming more frequent, and some people in baseball think they are, the Dodgers camp is as good a place as any to get a handle on the trend.
Nicasio broke his neck after being struck on the head by a 2011 line drive at Coors Field. Brandon McCarthy endured a fractured skull and an epidural hemorrhage after Erick Aybar of the Los Angeles Angels lined one off his head the following season.
Two years earlier at Yankee Stadium, Alex Rodriguez lined a ball off David Huff's head and into right field for a run-scoring double. Huff is in camp with the Dodgers competing for a roster spot as a long reliever. McCarthy is the Dodgers' No. 3 starter and Nicasio is a near-lock to make the bullpen.
"Hitters are getting quicker, guys are throwing harder. Before you'd see comebackers and guys would snag it or it'd hit off their glove," Huff said. "Now, guys are throwing harder, guys are swinging harder. The ball that hit me, I couldn't even get my glove up in time, at all. It was already into right field as I was reaching for it."
McCarthy was at home when Kershaw was hit by Parrino's liner. The Dodgers don't require players who aren't in that day's lineup to travel for spring training away games. He saw news of the incident pop up on Twitter, then saw that Kershaw remained in the game and figured he was OK. He's not as convinced as Huff is that pitchers are in more danger than ever.
"Maybe, but I don't like speculating on things that I don't have science behind," McCarthy said. "If I'm just going anecdotal, I know I've been hit too many times and I guess, if there are three guys in the room, that seems like a lot. But you could probably go in a lot of other clubhouses where there are none. I kind of have a heightened awareness of it now, but that's probably as far as I think about it."
In some ways, Huff's incident looked the scariest because the ball traveled so far after it hit him, but that, in fact, was good news for Huff. Other than a golf-ball sized knot on his head, he walked away unscathed after being released from the hospital. He made his next start.
"If that would have hit me square and dropped down to the ground or shot back to home plate, it probably would have been a lot more blunt force," Huff said.
Major League Baseball has approved a new padded cap for pitchers this season, but none of the Dodgers pitchers has yet seen it. McCarthy, who had a seizure in 2013 as a result of his brain injury, said he has a meeting planned with league officials to view the cap later this week. Last season, only one pitcher, San Diego reliever Alex Torres, wore a padded cap, which weighed about 7 ounces more than a normal one.
The new cap reportedly has the padding on the outside of the cap instead of lining the inside. Aesthetic and comfort issues have tended to discourage pitchers from wearing protective headgear.
"No offense to the guys who are working hard to make them better, but you look like Toad from Mario Brothers," Huff said.
The average major-league fastball comes in at around 90 mph, but according to a Kettering University study, the ball exits a major-leaguer's bat at speeds in excess of 109 mph. They travel even more rapidly off the barrels of metal bats, making it an even bigger issue for the college game and youth sports. Balls traveling that fast can do serious damage from a distance of 60 feet. Nicasio still has a four-inch vertical scar high on the back of his neck to prove it.
Alanna Rizzo, who now covers the Dodgers for SportsNetLA, was a sideline reporter at Root Sports covering the Rockies that day. She was in the middle of doing a live segment and had her back to the field.
"All of a sudden, Coors Field went silent, just a deafening silence," Rizzo said. "I turned around and he was on the ground."
The ball struck Nicasio near his left temple and he fell face-first onto the pitcher's rubber, snapping his head back. After he was carried off the field on a stretcher, doctors found a fractured skull and bleeding on the brain. They performed emergency surgery to repair the C-1 veterbra that broke when his head hit the rubber. Nicasio returned to Coors Field 11 days later, his neck in a brace, and received a standing ovation. The following spring, he got back on a mound to face his first hitter.
"It's like scary and not scary at the same time," Nicasio said. "You can't think, ‘Oh, I'm not going to throw strikes now.' "
All three Dodgers pitchers have had years to recover from the scars, both physical and psychological, and they are rarely asked about their brushes with mortality any longer. Not that any of them have forgotten the incidents, but in jobs as hard as theirs, there isn't much room for self-doubt or distraction.
"It's a part of the game you try not to think about, because the moment you start thinking about that stuff you don't concentrate on what you're actually trying to do and that's attack hitters and throw strikes," Huff said.
For many of us, that would be easier said than done.