The collision of a baseball and the human head invokes an instantaneous horror, the sort of fear that caused Royals manager Ned Yost to break into sweat in 60-degree weather. The worry coursed through the Royals dugout in an instant, a reaction catalyzed by the impact of an 89-mph fastball and the left side of second baseman Omar Infante’s jaw.
Infante fell to the dirt in the seventh inning of a 4-2 victory over Tampa Bay on Monday night before a sparse crowd at Kauffman Stadium. He clutched both sides of his head as he wrenched. He took a knee as the training staff tended to him. Blood smeared across his face and soaked his jersey.
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“It wasn’t pretty,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “That’s for sure.”
The pitch from Rays reliever Heath Bell could sideline Infante for weeks to come. He required stitches to repair the wound. He exited the park bound for a local hospital to determine if his jaw sustained a fracture. The team also feared he suffered a concussion.
The injury could be debilitating for the Royals (3-3). They lavished a four-year, $30.25 million contract on Infante this winter. Through six games, he looked up to the challenge, batting .348 with a steady defensive presence.
Infante appears bound for the disabled list, either the standard 15-day version or the seven-day version specifically for concussions. The two options to replace him look like Johnny Giavotella and Christian Colon. Giavotella out-lasted Colon during big-league camp this spring, but has underwhelmed in previous big-league cameos. Colon, the team’s first-round pick in 2010, has never played in the majors.
Yost refused to tip his hand regarding any impending roster moves. But Infante’s injury cast a pall over an otherwise pleasant evening for the club. Shortstop Alcides Escobar punished Bell in the sixth with a three-run double. The insurance runs allowed Jason Vargas to cruise through eight scoreless innings. The only blemish on his ledger was a solo homer allowed to Rays All Star Ben Zobrist.
“It was a good night,” Vargas said. “We were able to execute early, make pitches down in the zone. If we do that, we can be effective.”
After Nori Aoki led off the first with a triple, Hosmer plated with an RBI single. Their bats stayed mostly silent against Rays lefty Matt Moore for the subsequent frames. Moore departed midway through the fifth due to tightness in his left elbow. That forced Bell, eventually, into the fray.
In the sixth, the Royals loaded the bases against Bell. Escobar hacked at an inside fastball, which thumped off the wall in the left-field corner to push the team’s lead to four.
The sight unsettled his teammates. Billy Butler carried his worries into his next at-bat, and said he felt rattled for the next 20 minutes. Asked about the incident afterward, Hosmer grimaced.
“Oh, man,” he said.
Hosmer did not know the full extent of the blow until the training staff reached the field. When they lifted Infante’s head, Hosmer saw the blood. “It didn’t look good,” he said. “At all.”
Upon the initial impact, the Royals feared the baseball hit Infante higher on the head. He grabbed at his left eye. “That was so hard,” Escobar said. “I was really scared.”
Yost experienced some semblance of relief when he learned the ball collided with his jaw. But the damage was still significant.
For Infante, the discomfort was multifold. His jaw hurt, of course. But the opposite side of his forehead also ached. Yost pointed to his right temple, a diagonal opposite of the left jaw. “I’ve been punched in the jaw a time or two,” he said. “It hurts up there.”
Infante departed the field under the care of trainers Nick Kenney and Kyle Turner. Inside the clubhouse, teammates tried to visit him. Not all were successful.
As Infante headed to the hospital, the team was unsure when he could return to action.
“I haven’t seen him since,” Hosmer said. “I went into the training room to see how he was, and the doors were shut. So we haven’t gotten any word on what it is.”