J.A. Happ hopes to return in June
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Toronto Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ said a package containing a knee brace didn't arrive Thursday as hoped, so Friday will be the earliest he'll try throwing outdoors since he suffered injuries in a graphic May 7 episode.
Happ, 30, has been rehabbing at Toronto's minor league complex outside of Tampa since he suffered sprained right knee ligaments, a fractured skull and ear contusions requiring eight stitches when he was struck on the left ear by a line drive off the bat of the Rays' Desmond Jennings in St. Petersburg, Fla.
I thought something came in from the first-base side and knocked me over and then I guess for lack of better words, I was kinda looking [at] sort of an explosion -- loud ringing. ... I was aware the whole time.” -- J.A. Happ on comebacker
In his first one-on-one interview since being hit, Happ told Kelly Naqi of "Outside The Lines" that his walking isn't up to par yet, he hasn't been able to begin running and his only throwing has been with a weighted ball, indoors against a wall. Happ said he was told not to increase his throwing activity without the new knee brace.
But the former Phillies and Astros pitcher said doctors gave him good reports on the healing of his head injuries. He hopes to return to action next month.
"I'm hoping mid-June but I think it's hard to put a time frame on it exactly at this point, just because I haven't really been able to throw quite yet," Happ said.
A temporary hearing loss of about 30 percent was another consequence, but Happ said that deficit is now about five percent.
"I can hear everything pretty good," he said. "I feel like it's close to being back to normal."
As for how the trauma of the episode two weeks ago will affect his mental approach when he returns, Happ said he hopes he'll resume with just the customary focus on getting the first strike. But he says he doesn't know what to expect.
"I anticipate it not being an issue but we'll never know until I get back out there," Happ said. "It's something you try not to think about. There's certainly a chance it will be more difficult to do that from now on."
Within hours of taking the shot to the head, Happ saw the video of the play and its aftermath several times, but he said he hasn't seen it since. Happ said the impact of the ball was so soon after he released it, he couldn't have done anything differently.
"Well, initially, I wasn't sure what happened because to me it seemed like maybe I got hit from the first-base side, if there was like a collision somehow -- cause I don't remember seeing the ball at all and moving my head," Happ said. "I thought something came in from the first-base side and knocked me over and then I guess for lack of better words, I was kinda looking [at] sort of an explosion -- loud ringing. Everything else was quiet and just ringing in my ear and a lot of pressure, so that's when my hands were on my head. I felt like I need to keep everything together. I was aware the whole time."
As "Outside The Lines" reported in the wake of Happ's injury, he was the fourth major league pitcher struck in the head by a line drive in the past four months of regular and postseason play. After then-Oakland pitcher Brandon McCarthy suffered life-threatening injuries in September, Major League Baseball said it increased its efforts to come up with a padded cap that would provide some protection against head injuries.
As with the McCarthy incident, however, a padded cap probably wouldn't have been any help; the contact point was below the cap line. When asked about protective headgear, Happ said, "Anything would be better than what we have now."
And the idea of a helmet or a mask for a pitcher is not one he dismissed, Happ said. If one could be devised that wouldn't block his vision or fall off, Happ would be interested in trying it.
"I think up to this point in the game, it's been an inherent risk that's taken," Happ said. "A lot of pitches have been thrown, so a way to change it without drastically changing or affecting the way you throw or your sight or comfort level is going to be difficult, but hopefully not impossible."
The outpouring of support from fans and the baseball community has been "the most amazing part of this," Happ said.
He said he's gone from being concerned and scared to feeling relief that his injuries weren't worse, to experiencing frustration at the pace of his progress. But Happ added the overriding feeling now is one of being "incredibly fortunate."
"Four to six weeks [out] in the grand scheme is not bad compared to what could have been, but I don't like to go into what could have been, either, so I'm fortunate but also anxious at this point," Happ said.
The interview with Happ will air on "Outside The Lines" on Friday.
William Weinbaum is a producer for ESPN's Outside the Lines.
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