DENVER — The baseball smacked off the side of Juan Nicasio’s head with a sickening thud, the same sound a ball makes when it collides with the barrel of a bat. Nicasio lay on the pitcher’s mound, flat on his back, mostly still. The crowd at Coors Field gasped, then hushed. It was just another Friday night baseball game, until it became something worse.
After shortstop Ian Desmond’s line drive drilled Nicasio in the head and a cart carried him off the field in the second inning, the Washington Nationals beat the Colorado Rockies, 5-3, in an eventful game that could not escape the pall of Nicasio’s injury. Nicasio was taken from Coors Field to a local hospital, where by game’s end he was resting comfortably and undergoing a battery of tests, a Rockies spokesman said.
Desmond prayed for Nicasio immediately, he said, and he checked in with Nationals trainers constantly throughout the game for updates about Nicasio. Ultimately, though, Desmond arrived at the same conclusion as the rest of the Nationals. They felt awful and they hoped the best for Nicasio, a 24-year-old from the Dominican Republic.
But they agreed that any of them could some night be the one carried off the field, and they had accepted that as part of the bargain that comes with playing major league baseball.
“It’s hard to see another ballplayer get hurt,” Desmond said. “We’re all like brothers out there. It’s just unfortunate. I said a prayer for him as soon as it happened. It’s in God’s hands now. It’s a terrible thing to happen, but I think we all accept that as part of the game.”
“It’s part of the game, sadly,” Nationals closer Drew Storen said. “There’s not really anything you can do about that. You can’t control it. If you sit there and think about it, you’re going to be in big trouble. It’s sad to see that. It might not scare us as much as it scares our families.”
Jordan Zimmermann, who in college had his jaw wired shut after a line struck him during a practice, left the game after 5 2 / 3 innings, having struck out eight and not allowed a run. Henry Rodriguez’s ghastly outing nearly cost the Nationals the victory, but the back of their bullpen bailed him out. Tyler Clippard escaped a bases loaded jam and pitched two innings, and Storen recorded a four-out save.
The Nationals’ offense — which included a two-run triple in the first inning by Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse’s 19th home run — drilled 15 hits and provided just enough run support. After his line drive off the right of Nicasio’s head turned into a single, Desmond added three more hits, the product of a pre-game adjustment.
The details of the game felt hollow after Nicasio’s frightening ordeal. Desmond led off the second inning and took a called strike on Nicasio’s first pitch. Ahead in the count, 0-1, Nicasio fired a 93-mph four-seam fastball. Desmond smoked the ball straight back up the middle, the ball traveling faster than Nicasio threw it. Nicasio covered his face with his glove, but he could not move his left arm fast enough.
The baseball smacked off the right side of Nicasio’s head with a horrific thump and rolled all the way to the Rockies dugout on the first base side of the field. The crowd groaned, then quieted. Nicasio crumpled to the dirt.
“It’s definitely scary,” Zimmermann said. “I kind of know what it was like. It’s tough. It’s the game of baseball, and freak things like that happen. You never want anyone to get injured, no matter which team they’re on.”
Rockies Manager Jim Tracy and medical personnel rushed on to the field. Players filled the top step of each dugout. The crowd grew silent. A cart drove to the middle of the diamond. Nicasio remained mostly still, moving his left hand or twitching his legs. Infielders circled Nicasio. They intermittently covered their faces with their hands.
Desmond jogged to the Nationals’ dugout and leaned against the railing. In one corner of the bench sat left-handed pitcher John Lannan, who absorbed a line drive to his face July 8 at Nationals Park against, coincidentally, the Rockies. Lannan had walked off the field, bloodied but under his own power.
“It’s just part of the game,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said. “It’s an unfortunate part, but that’s part of it. I hope he’s alright. Shoot, I’ve been hit right in the coconut. It’s just part of it. You’ve just got to shake it off.”
Medical personnel strapped Nicasio on a stretcher and loaded him onto a motorized cart. The crowd and the players applauded as it drove into left field and through a gate in the fence, out of Coors Field. A television camera showed Nicasio moving his extremities as he lay on his back.
“I heard he was talking out there,” Johnson said. “He was moving around.”
Nicasio, 24, was born San Francisco de Macoris, Duarte, Dominican Republic, signed with the Rockies at 19 and made his major league debut May 28, taking Jorge de la Rosa’s spot after he underwent Tommy John surgery. Nicasio entered Friday night with a 4-3 record and a 3.95 ERA in 12 starts.
If anyone at the park could relate to Nicasio, it may have been Zimmermann. He still has a small, barely noticeable scar on his face from the line drive that smacked off his face during his junior year at Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
“I never got knocked out,” Zimmermann recalled. “I just went down and adrenaline took over or whatever, or shock. It didn’t really hurt until a couple days after.”
Friday night, Zimmermann reached 138 1 / 3 innings on the season, 21 2 / 3 shy of the 160-inning limit the Nationals placed on him in his first full season following Tommy John surgery. Manager Davey Johnson said Zimmermann could eclipse 160 in the course of his final start, which may give Zimmermann four more starts this season.
“I’m just going to go out there and keep pitching until the tell me to stop,” Zimmermann said. “However many more, I’m just going to keep pitching.”
Zimmermann needed Clippard not to spoil his night. Zimmermann exited with a 4-0 lead, with runners on the corners and two outs. He had allowed consecutive singles, then struck out Seth Smith swinging at an 87-mph slider, his 96th pitch of the night. But the pitch almost hit Smith, which made Johnson worry. His bullpen was rested, and he thought it best for a reliever not to face the tying run.
“I was giving them a little slack,” Johnson said. “Obviously, I got burned with it. I wasn’t feeling so good about that.”
Johnson summoned fireballer Henry Rodriguez, whose performance surpassed even the worst Johnson could have imagined. Rodriguez faced four batters, allowed three hits — none cheap — and a walk and left with the bases loaded and the Nationals clinging to a 4-3 lead. In his last 5 2 / 3 innings, Rodriguez has allowed eight hits and eight walks.
After Rodriguez’s latest implosion, Johnson called on Clippard to clean up the mess. He threw Eric Young Jr. three straight balls, moving one pitch away from forcing home the tying run. Clippard saved himself with three consecutive strikes. Young stared at them all, including an 83-mph changeup for strike three.
Clippard knew he would be counted for more than just escaping the jam. “I tried to settle my nerves there and get some more outs,” Clippard said. “I’m trying to get the ball to Drew. That’s my mindset coming into that situation.”
Clippard retired the next five, leaving in the eighth in the middle of an-bat after two scoreless innings. Clippard had done his job — with a 1-0 count on Mark Ellis, Storen entered to record his first four-out save since June 2. Storen induced a groundout from Ellis on a 3-2 pitch, his first goal completed.
“I just turned it into two outings, really,” Storen said. “The big thing for me is, you kind of get in the dugout and you get your mind to hit the reset button. Here we go, another three outs, just act like you’re coming in from the bullpen. The big thing for me is hit the rest button, stop thinking and kind of focus in. I just got to relax and act like I’m coming into a fresh game.”
It helped when Morse drove in another run with an RBI single, which followed an intentional walk to Zimmerman. In the ninth, Storen allowed a one-out double to Dexter Fowler, but that was it. He struck out one and got Troy Tulowitzki, as the tying run, to line out to center.
The Nationals lined up to shake hands, the end of a win more easily earned than celebrated.