John Lannan hunched over in a crouch on the front of the mound at Nationals Park on Friday night likely in complete shock. The searing pain that would run through his body had probably not yet set in. Neither had the fact that he'd just taken Ty Wigginton's liner off his face in the fourth inning, barely deflecting the comebacker with his glove.
As the play continued around him, Lannan immediately popped up and began walking quickly off the field. Nationals trainer Lee Kuntz met him halfway to the Nationals dugout and the two spoke as Lannan put his hat and hand over his face to catch the blood now dripping from his nose. Kuntz grabbed the back of Lannan's jersey as the two went down the steps to steady the left-hander — just in case.
It was a scary scene in the Nationals 3-2 loss Friday night but one that ended with one of the best possible outcomes when Lannan was deemed to have suffered only a nasal contusion. Immediate X-rays came back negative but Lannan was taken to the hospital for further evaluation and was not available for comment.
"It's a manager's worst nightmare," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "We were very fortunate that there isn't a lot of damage. That ball was smoked and the good news is he got his glove up to deflect it off him so it didn't get him too bad. I think he's going to be all right. He may not even miss a start with the All-Star break but it was dangerous."
While the main concern was on the pitcher's health, the rest of his teammates had to deal with the urge to rush to his aid and follow the play that was still ongoing. The single resulted in an RBI and there was a possible play at the plate — meaning catcher Wilson Ramos couldn't leave his post.
"I couldn't go out and help," Ramos said, admitting he feared the worst for his pitcher. "I was waiting for the throw from center field [before] I could go and see and help him, but the trainer told me he was good after the inning was over."
Ryan Mattheus came in cold. Three runs, all told, came in in the inning — the second of which came in on a balk by Mattheus — and Lannan would end up a tough-luck loser despite 5 2/3 scoreless innings from the bullpen. His incident, though, provided a moment of levity in an otherwise deflating loss for the Nationals, their second straight after winning three in a row against the Cubs.
"To be honest, he got up so quick that I thought something was really, really, wrong," said second baseman Danny Espinosa." I couldn't tell exactly where it got hit — if it got him in the chin, got him in the teeth — but when I saw him get up so quickly I was kind of almost more worried that something really bad happened."
It wouldn't be the first time. There is a long, sordid history of pitchers getting hit with batted balls and their position — just 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate — makes them extremely vulnerable.
Nationals right-hander Jason Marquis, Saturday's starter, was charting pitches Friday night. The sound, he said, made it seem as though Lannan got his glove up at least a little and eased his fears. Marquis himself has seen the perils of the spot on the mound, once taking the barrel end of a broken bat off his left cheek.
There are plenty of other examples. Minnesota Twins pitcher Nick Blackburn took a line drive off the face in a similar fashion in 2008 and came away with just a contusion as well. He did not miss a start, though he allowed seven earned runs over four innings in his first outing after getting hit.
Baltimore Orioles pitcher Chris Jakubauskas was struck with a line drive in the head off the bat of Lance Berkman last season in his debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He did not pitch in the major leagues for the Pirates again but he held the Nationals to three earned runs over five innings in a 7-4 Orioles victory last month.
But for every close call and happy ending to a scary story there are cautionary tales like former Red Sox reliever Bryce Florie, who was struck in the face and required significant surgery to repair several fractures, lost some vision in his right eye and made just seven major league appearances the rest of his career.
In Lannan's case, the early reports are that he falls more on the Blackburn side than the Florie side — an encouraging sign as he was putting together perhaps his finest professional season. In his previous eight starts before Friday night, Lannan had worked to a 1.92 ERA and was averaging 6 2/3 innings per outing using what his manager called "one of the best sinkers in baseball."
"Evidently he's doing pretty good," Johnson said. "He's talking and getting over the shock of getting smoked pretty good. It's a miracle, I don't know how he didn't get a broken nose. He's lucky."
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