Aftermath of hit could alter Heyward's mindset
For some players, getting struck in face has effect on mental approach
ATLANTA -- More than two years have passed since Jordan Schafer was struck in the face with a fouled bunt attempt he made against Jon Niese. But the psychological scarring remains fresh enough that Schafer told manager Fredi Gonzalez he did not want to play when the Braves were scheduled to face the Mets left-hander in Spring Training this year.
This provides a better understanding of the anxiety Schafer felt when he replaced a bloodied Jason Heyward during the sixth inning of last Wednesday's game at Citi Field. Along with being concerned for his teammate, Schafer was dreading the possibility of batting against Niese, who had just fractured Heyward's jaw with a 90-mph fastball.
"I wanted no part of that, especially after that had happened to [Heyward]," Schafer said.
Schafer was fortunate to miss just one game with the sinus fracture he suffered courtesy of the fouled bunt attempt that dented his face on June 3, 2011. Less than two weeks later in Atlanta, he went hitless in three at-bats against Niese.
Those matchups at Turner Field accounted for the last time the two players opposed each other before last week, when Schafer ended Niese's seven-inning outing with a strikeout.
"He's the one guy I don't want to face," Schafer said. "I'm not saying anything or accusing him of anything, like the ball is scuffed. But he'll throw some [fastballs], and some of them will just take a left turn. I don't know. But I don't want any part of facing him."
While the Braves have not provided a definitive timetable, they remain hopeful Heyward will return to their lineup during the latter portion of September, in time for the postseason. Once he is cleared to resume baseball activities, the outfielder will get at-bats in the instructional league or in simulated games against any of Atlanta's pitchers who might need work.
"I've been hit in the head and stuff like that," Braves assistant hitting coach Scott Fletcher said. "You're right back in there. It's part of being a warrior. You jump right back in there and fight."
This was the mindset Braves outfielder Reed Johnson had when he was struck near his left eye with a fastball during what was scheduled to be the last plate appearance he would make during a Minor League rehab assignment for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs two years ago.
After Major League Baseball reviewed medical reports and felt confident he had not suffered a concussion, Johnson returned to Chicago's lineup three days after being left bloodied by the pitch.
The fact that Schafer's anxiety pertains to Niese supports the theory developed by Johnson, who believes specific situations or matchups are what primarily fuels the uneasiness a player feels after getting hit in the face.
"[Heyward] will be all right," Johnson said. "With two strikes and facing a left-handed pitcher, the exact scenario of what happened, it will go through his mind. Sometimes you'll have to step out [of the box] and refocus, so that something like that doesn't enter your mind. But I don't really see it as a problem, especially being left-handed. A majority of the guys he's going to face are right-handed anyway."
Braves pitcher Paul Maholm provides another perspective to the way players overcome any fear that might develop after getting hit in the head.
Less than a year after being selected by the Pirates with the eighth overall selection in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, Maholm was pitching for Class A Advanced Lynchburg when he hung a curveball that Casey Rogowski lined directly back to the mound. The ball hit the left side of Maholm's face, leaving him with a broken nose and a shattered left orbital.
Doctors put three titanium plates around Maholm's left eye and reconstructed his nose, which was smashed in many pieces. One significant scar across the top of his head provides a constant reminder of the incident, which occurred a little more than a year before he made his Major League debut for Pittsburgh.
"For me, I think it was trying to prove I was fine," Maholm said. "There are stories of guys getting hit and not getting back to their normal selves. But I was just kind of stubborn. I was just thinking, 'I'm going to pitch and if it happens, it happens. But I'm not going to sit here and worry about whether I'm going to get hit again.'
"You've got to think of how many at-bats you've had that it hasn't happened and not thinka from here on out, 'It's going to happen.' It's like with every pitch I throw, I could get hit again. But it's happened once, and hopefully, it will stick at one."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.