By Lenn Robbins
The most horrific sight in baseball came crashing through the television screen Monday night. Kevin Pillar didn’t have a chance to duck from a fastball thrown by Atlanta’s Jacob Webb. A nanosecond after the pitch obliterated his nose, Pillar spun halfway around as he dropped in the batter’s box. He raised his head. Blood immediately poured onto the sand.
Webb’s pitch was traveling 94 mph.
“Devastating,” said Braves catcher Tomás Nido. “I was sick to my stomach.”
Pillar, as tough as they come, suffered multiple nasal fractures. He should be able to return this season. But not until he steps into the box and faces the next high and tight 94 mph fastball will we know if Pillar can continue to play the game at a high level.
Any baseball fan not hoping for his complete return deserves a special place in baseball purgatory, like only getting one channel televising the Detroit Tigers.
The scene was not nearly as horrific on May 1, 2019, when pitcher Corey Kluber took a line drive off his forearm. Kluber actually tried to throw out Miami’s Brian Anderson by helplessly swiping at the ball with his glove hand.
Anderson’s batted ball was traveling 102 mph according to Statcast data.
“It looked ugly,” said Indians manager Terry Francona.
Kluber, nicknamed Klubot because of his stoic, android-like persona, showed no emotion other than to puff out his cheeks as one might do after stubbing a toe. He was diagnosed with a non-displaced fracture of his right ulna. He wouldn’t pitch again that season.
And he barely pitched the following season after a right shoulder injury that might or might not have been a residual effect of the broken arm. When the Yankees signed the 35-year-old to a one-year, $11 million deal, both parties had reason to question if Kluber could play the game at a high level.
He answered that question in resounding fashion Wednesday night when he threw the 12th no-hitter in Yankees history, a 2-0 domination of the Rangers. Kluber responded to this zenith moment not much differently than he had to his nadir one, when his forearm was broken.
“Um, I just think it was a lot of fun,” he said “It was just fun to be a part of.”
Well stuff the corks back in those champagne bottles folks.
Not only was his performance an affirming one for Kluber, who needed just 101 pitches to smother the Rangers, it was an uplifting one for the Yankees, whose starting pitching will remain a concern until it proves itself in the postseason.
And there’s no telling what the ramifications could be for a Yankees team that has lurched its way to a 24-19 record and fourth place in the A.L. East.
“I feel like it was almost like what you would imagine the feeling of winning the World Series,” said catcher Kyle Higashioka. “It was a crazy, euphoric feeling.”
The injury that Pillar suffered certainly was more gruesome and potentially devastating than the one suffered by Kluber. All one has to do is look at a photo of Tony Conigliaro to know that much. But when a ball traveling faster than a car on the Long Island Expressway detonates on a human’s body, it can also do funky things to a player’s psyche.
Pillar said he would have fought to stay in the game if he could see. He seems to lack the fear gene.
Kluber never expressed any reservations about coming back. His emotional flat line approach is a big reason for the two-time Cy Young award winner’s success. But it would be unrealistic to think he didn’t have some nagging doubt about his ability to be the pitcher he was after a two-year layoff and a frightening moment on the mound.
“I’m excited for him and his story and what he’s been through as a Cy Young Award winner,” said Yankees manager Aaron Boone. “One of the dominant pitchers in the game. Obviously coming back from what he’s been through the last couple of years to work to this point.”
Kluber was mobbed by teammates and no doubt will receive a rousing ovation the next time he pitches at home. Pillar deserves the same the next time he steps in the batter box at Citi Field.
Comebacks from the worst moments in baseball deserve at least that much.