Chris Young back on the mound
Padres star pitcher makes heroic return to hill
The video is all over the Internet, a chilling sequence of Albert Pujols -- perhaps the most feared slugger in Major League baseball -- sending a line drive straight back at Chris Young.
The ball covered the 60 feet, 6 inches between home plate and the pitcher's mound in a heartbeat and crashed squarely into the face of the Padres' lanky right-hander. It's the kind of image that makes you turn away. The sound was sickening, too.
The next thing spectators and viewers saw was Young crumbling to the ground with blood gushing from where Pujols' shot had crashed into his face.
"I haven't looked at the video," the pitcher said this week. "I don't have to. I lived it."
Pujols was shaken by the event on May 21 and stood with Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez praying for the pitcher, who sustained a broken nose and a fractured skull. Young underwent two surgeries, lost his sense of smell and taste for a time and experienced problems breathing.
But less than two months later, the 6-foot-10 right-hander was back on the mound, pitching again. There were a couple of simulated games, then a pair of rehab starts and then Young returned to the Padres. It was a remarkable recovery story for the Princeton University grad who was All-Ivy League in both baseball and basketball.
"I'm so excited to be back out there pitching," he said. "I don't take it for granted. I try to enjoy it more, appreciate it more than I did before I got hurt.''
In his first start back against Arizona, Young worked five shutout innings, allowing two hits with eight strikeouts and two walks. Then, against the New York Mets, Young took a one-hitter with five walks and five strikeouts into the sixth inning. Over his first 10 1/3 innings back, Young allowed two runs on three hits. The Padres lost both games, but had to be encouraged by the way Young pitched. They will take those numbers from him every time.
For his part, Young was encouraged but not satisfied. "My rhythm and tempo are just a hair off," he said. "It comes with time. After two months, you can't expect midseason form, not having been out there."
Young confessed to his usual pre-game nerves when he returned, but he had no fear of being decked by another line drive. "It's such a low-risk injury," he said. "It's pretty rare that it happens. I keep that in mind when I go out there."
Young thought it might take time to get over his concerns. But there was no problem, even when he faced comebackers. It was just another day at the office, a return to business as usual, even if it wasn't so usual the last time he was out there pitching against Pujols.
The injury came at an awful time for Young, who had recorded consecutive victories against Colorado and Seattle, allowing five runs in 12 innings with 12 strikeouts. He had won three of his four starts before the harrowing injury.
In his fifth Major League season, Young seems on the crux of real stardom. He was picked for the All-Star team last season and led the Majors in lowest opponent batting average for the second straight year. His .194 batting average against was the best for any pitcher since Pedro Martinez held opposing hitters to a .184 average in 1997. His .204 opponent batting average since 2006 leads all Major League pitchers.
Now he hopes to pick up where he left off. For their part, the Padres are thrilled to have him back. Young was their No. 2 starter at the beginning of the season, slotted between Cy Young winners Jake Peavy and Greg Maddux, and the trio gave San Diego an impressive top of the rotation. He will use the remaining two months of the season to tune up for 2009.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.