These are the moments you realize the unique terror that percolates constantly in a baseball game. Players don’t think about it because they can’t — because to think about it would keep them from ever stepping into a batter’s box, or onto a pitcher’s rubber, or in front of a line drive traveling 116 miles per hour.
No. Can’t think about any of that.
That’s why the pictures from Atlanta’s Truist Park Monday night were so poignant, so telling, so emotional. The Mets and the Braves, to a man, saw Kevin Pillar get clocked in the face by a 94.5 mph fastball out of the fingers of Atlanta’s Jacob Webb. They saw the blood gush from Pillar’s face, pooling in the dirt around the plate, enough that the grounds crew would have to tend to the area for five minutes between innings.
“You shake your head,” Mets pitcher Taijuan Walker said. “You get sick to your stomach.”
“Time stands still,” James McCann said.
Because they were looking at Pillar. But they saw themselves, too. Years ago, not long after Tony Conigliaro died, his old teammate with the Red Sox, Carl Yastrzemski, recalled the night of Aug. 18, 1967, when Conigliaro’s career — and life — was forever altered when the Angels’ Jack Hamilton beaned him at Fenway Park.
“What we all live with,” Yaz said, “is how easily that could have been any of us.”
Gil McDougald of the Yankees vowed in 1957 he’d quit baseball at age 29 if a line drive he struck that splattered Cleveland’s star pitcher Herb Score cost Score his eye. There were many Indians and Yankees on the Polo Grounds on the gray afternoon of Aug. 16, 1920, when Ray Cleveland’s Ray Chapman was beaned by New York side-armer Carl Mays, who admitted they suffered periodic nightmares the rest of their life.
“That could have been any of us.”
The bases were loaded in the seventh inning. There were two outs. The Mets had already cashed a run, craved more. Pillar was in a two-strike hole. He took a ball. And then he was on his knees. Dread. Horror. Fright. McCann, standing on third, was frozen.
“The last thing I’m thinking about,” McCann said, “is touching home plate.”
Somehow, Pillar was able to find his feet, walk off the field. Somehow, McCann saw him walking around the clubhouse not long after. Somehow, in fact, Pillar has survived this before: two years ago, as a Giant, he took a 97 mph fastball from San Diego’s Dinelson Lamet on the chin. And somehow, he played the next day.
Somehow, you wouldn’t know it when he steps into a batter’s box.
“This guy is a warrior,” Mets manager Luis Rojas said. “You saw him.”
By then, Pillar was at a local hospital getting a CT scan and also tweeting, “I’m doing fine #RBI #gamewinner.”
The Mets won the game, 3-1, and that felt like the most trivial of information. The Mets kept their focus on 2 ½ more innings of business. And then shifted their attention to their fallen teammate. Knowing, heart of hearts, it easily could have been any of them.