CJ Nitkowski: What happens to a pitcher when they hit a batter in the face

When Mike Fiers hit Giancarlo Stanton in the face with a fastball on Thursday night, our attention was immediately turned to the Miami Marlins slugger — and rightfully so. The concern for Stanton is warranted, his MVP season is assuredly over and the focus now turns to his health and recovery.

There is a second side to this story though, one that is often overlooked. After the game when Fiers spoke with the media he was visibly upset about the incident. To the point of near tears, Fiers expressed his sympathy and sorrow for the unintentional pitch that struck Stanton in the face. His concerns were with Stanton and his emotions could not have been any more sincere.

For Fiers there will be a recovery process as well, one not nearly as daunting as what Stanton will likely go through, but it is a process nonetheless.

In 1998 I experienced nearly the exact same situation. Pitching for the Houston Astros at the time, a two-seam fastball got away from me while facing Craig Counsell, then a member of the Florida Marlins. After fouling off a few pitches that were away, Brad Ausmus and I decided it was time to throw a pitch middle-in. Counsell was giving me a tough at-bat with the bases loaded and I knew if I executed this two-seam fastball in, I had a good chance to induce weak contact or maybe even a strikeout.

It was raining that night, but I have never used that as an excuse. The reality was I didn’t finish the pitch, I didn’t drive it to the glove, and when I released the ball it was headed straight for Craig Counsell’s face. When a ball like that comes out of your hand you’re just hoping he gets out of the way. He didn’t. The pitch struck Craig Counsell on the side of the face, breaking his jaw.

It’s an awful feeling as a pitcher. There is no intent, you are just trying to win an at-bat, a pitch gets away and suddenly you realize you have may have just put an opponent’s career in jeopardy.

You don’t sleep well in these situations. Laying in my hotel bed that night I replayed the pitch over and over again in my mind. Was the mistake mental? Physical? What would I have done differently? Was the pitch selection wrong? You just want to go back in time and make it go away.

The next day is not much better. I called Craig at the hospital. If memory serves, his wife or girlfriend at the time answered the phone. This doesn’t get any easier. You’re quickly reminded of the effect this has not only on him, but the ones around him who love and support him and have become so invested in his career.

I spoke with Craig and relayed my apology and my concern. I couldn’t think of much else to say. When you’re in that situation, I imagined he really didn’t want to hear me drivel on about how sorry I was. He was very gracious to me on that phone call. You feel a little better, at least for the moment.

***

I was back at the yard later that day. We had a game to play. My mind was elsewhere. I walked into our dugout just before batting practice and sitting there is Jim Leyland, the manager of the Marlins. He was looking for me.

I falsely made the assumption that Jim Leyland would be upset with me and have some type of angst towards me and he needed to let me know. It was the complete opposite.

Leyland was concerned for me. I was shocked, but sat there quietly and listened. He talked about how difficult it could be for a pitcher to recover from such an incident. He was concerned that I could get tentative, that I would be afraid to pitch inside again and that when I did go in, that I would do it without conviction. He was right, those thoughts crossed my mind. He encouraged me not to let that happen. I was 25 years old, I potentially had some years in this game in front of me. If I didn’t recover from this, my career would be cut short. I could never survive, Leyland told me, if I was scared to pitch inside.

He assured me that he knew it was unintentional and that no one held me accountable for what I did to his second baseman. That conversation is one I’ll never forget. It was more appreciated than I could express in words. It was a good first step in recovery — now I had to go practice it.

I pitched the next day against the Marlins. Warming up in the bullpen was not a pleasant experience. Luckily this was Miami and not Boston, Philadelphia or New York.

I trotted out to the mound after my manager Larry Dierker made the call. The paid attendance that day was 19,038. The rain of boos was tolerable — I knew they were coming. That stuff never really bothered me much in my career, but I heard these more than I usually did. More importantly, I had to face a tough right-handed hitter in Edgar Renteria, who was in the midst of a good season.

I reminded myself of Jim Leyland’s words, but I wasn’t sure I could really execute them. I struck out Renteria on three pitches, none of which were remotely close to being inside. I was sent to the minor leagues shortly thereafter.

***

Three years later I had to face Craig Counsell for the first time since that awful day in 1998. He was then playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks and me for the Detroit Tigers. Emotions resurfaced, my guilt suddenly became fresh in my mind. I remembered what Leyland had told me, but it didn’t matter. There was no way I was throwing Craig Counsell a pitch inside. I stayed away the entire at-bat, he hit a hard line drive for an out.

As luck would have it, this was an extended relief outing for me, and I had to face Craig again. This second at-bat was different. I almost allowed a hit to him by doing exactly what Leyland told me not to do, by being tentative inside. I felt I had done my penance, I felt more relaxed and freed up and threw at least one fastball inside to Craig Counsell in that at-bat. I got him out again, but this time with weaker contact. The results are not what mattered, it was the process in which they came that I needed to identify.

With Jim Leyland’s advice and some time, I was able to get over what happened. It also helped that Craig Counsell went on to have 14 more productive seasons in baseball. I did not cut short his career, which may have been the greatest gift to me in all of this. Had that been the case, I imagine the recovery process may have been more difficult.

For Mike Fiers, now his process begins. It is simple to just tell him not to think about it, that it was just an accident and to move on. It can be more complex than that. Our concerns should be with Giancarlo Stanton, he is the one who has and will continue to deal with the physical recovery in this unfortunate accident. But don’t forget about Mike Fiers as well, he has recovery to deal with too.