I happened to be in the Bay Area and at the Oakland Coliseum this past Wednesday afternoon, a ballpark that I've frequented hundreds of times over the years; despite its architectural impoverishment, it has always been my favorite place to view a baseball game due to the configuration of the center-field bleachers, which provide a perfect vantage point for tracking defense and are among the very few bleachers with backs on the seats.
Unfortunately, the seats also provided a perfect view of one of the most alarming events that can ever happen in a baseball stadium--a screaming line drive hit back through the middle with such force that the pitcher literally has no time to even react to the ball.
And that's exactly what happened in the fourth inning, when A's starter Brandon McCarthy threw a 3-1 slider to the Angels' Erick Aybar. The resulting line drive off the bat of the Angels' shortstop was so sharply hit and its trajectory was such that it bisected McCarthy's follow-through. In short, Brandon had no chance to react to the ball, as our freeze-frame indicates. (You can see the blur of the baseball as it is literally less than a foot away from striking McCarthy in the head.)
As has been reported elsewhere, the sound of the ball striking McCarthy was a frightening echo of the sound of bat meeting ball just a split second earlier. As Brandon tumbled to the ground, the entire stadium rose to its feet in shock and fear. Remarkably, the ball ricocheted to A's third baseman Josh Donaldson, who had the presence of mind to field the ball and throw Aybar out at first by an eyelash before rushing to the mound in order to aid his fallen teammate.
It's a miracle that there are not more incidents of this type in baseball, but such an occurrence does raise the question as to how pitchers could be better protected. There is no easy answer. McCarthy suffered a fractured skull and will miss the rest of the 2012 season, but it could have been so much worse. [EDIT: McCarthy's injuries have turned out to be somewhat more serious than originally thought, and he will be facing several weeks of tense recovery time, with a return to the mound being a good bit further off than what seemed to be the case after he walked off the field under his own power.]
Such a sobering moment might well signal what many have been anticipating for the A's--a downturn of their fortunes after a heady run in the second half of '12. Oakland is still the AL leader in homers since the All-Star break, their offense boosted by the long-ball heroics of Chris Carter and Brandon Moss, both of whom didn't reach the major league squad until June. The A's had closed to within three games of the Texas Rangers in the AL West after their Labor Day weekend sweep of the Red Sox, but against the Angels they looked as dazed as McCarthy after he'd been struck by Aybar's line drive. With McCarthy out for a second time (he'd previously missed seven weeks, during which time the A's had managed to work around his absence) and a schedule that features games mostly against contenders over the balance of the season, the A's appear to have arrived at their crossroads.