OAKLAND — Chris Bassitt’s emotional return to the mound couldn’t have gone much better Thursday at the Coliseum — three innings pitched, no runs, one hit allowed and four strikeouts. But the A’s All-Star pitcher, who barely five weeks ago was hit in the face by a line drive, wasn’t satisfied just being back on the field.
“I just wish I somehow could have did more,” he said after the A’s blew an early 4-1 lead and lost 6-5 to the Seattle Mariners, completing a four-game home sweep at the hands of the Mariners and further damaging the A’s fading playoff hopes. “It sucks.”
It was a tough loss, but that wasn’t the story of the day.
A small crowd dotting the Coliseum seats for Thursday’s matinee rose to their feet when the starting pitcher was announced. An old friend had returned, and his return was never guaranteed.
For the first time since Aug. 17, Bassitt took the mound to start a baseball game. Undeterred by a potentially career-ending incident in which a 100mph line drive fractured his face, Bassitt defied odds, leapt mental hurdles with ease, beat the six-week projected recovery timeline and returned looking just like the ace he was before surgery.
With the A’s clinging on desperately to their postseason hopes and in desperate need of some inspiration, Bassitt inspired with three scoreless innings against the Seattle Mariners. He gave up a leadoff single and a walk in the first inning, then retired the next nine batters he faced with four strikeouts on 48 pitches in three total innings. His 13th win fell to pieces when James Kaprielian and Jake Diekman surrendered the three-run lead he left the game with.
Those closest to Bassitt knew he’d be hungry to pitch again. Now he’s slotted to make two more starts before the regular season ends, manager Bob Melvin said. A miraculous return. But not a surprising one.
“He’s a fearless cat anyway,” A’s utility player Tony Kemp said. “But to build up that confidence and mental to get back out there and pretend like nothing happened is amazing. He’s a grinder, he’s a workhorse.”
When Bassitt returned from Chicago earlier this month — where the horrifying injury occurred and where he underwent surgery to repair a tripod fracture in his cheekbone — he assured he had no mental hold-backs. He doesn’t remember the moment Chicago White Sox’s Brian Goodwin’s line drive hit his face, and he will never watch the replay.
“A lot of guys, if anything like that happens to them and they would probably choose to shut it down,” A’s outfielder Mark Canha said. “Not to their own fault at all, you want to play it safe and it’s not an easy thing psychologically to come back from for a lot of reasons. The guy just wants to help the team.”
He just wanted to get back in the saddle as soon as possible. At times, according to A’s athletic trainers, Bassitt wanted to move faster through his rehab than medically advised. A special mindset, according to medical experts.
“The mental part of this return cannot be understated,” Dr. Nirav Pandya, Director of Sports Medicine at Benioff Children’s Hospital said. “The fear of having a ball impact you in the face can literally put an end to many careers. To get back this quickly knowing that baseballs will be coming back to you at high speeds without having flashbacks or hesitations is a testament to his mental fortitude.”
Bassitt’s teammates and coaches weren’t surprised to see their ace seize his comeback full throttle, but those on opposing teams were stunned. Mariners reliever Sean Doolittle, a fan-favorite closer during his six seasons with Oakland, recalls the fear he felt when A’s teammate Brandon McCarthy was hit in the head with a come-backer in September of 2012.
McCarthy suffered an epidural hemorrhage, brain contusion and skull fracture that required brain surgery. He couldn’t return that season, but he enjoyed six more seasons in the big leagues playing for various teams. But the moment never went away.
“It didn’t happen to me, but it messed me up mentally for a while,” Doolittle said. “Seeing it happen, the sound. I can’t imagine. It’s every pitcher’s worst nightmare. I haven’t even watched what happened to Bassitt.”
Bassitt’s return to the mound was a bright light amid a torturous season for the A’s and their fanbase. Not only has team ownership threatened relocation to Las Vegas amid heated negotiations with the City of Oakland over the Howard Terminal ballpark project, but fans are currently witnessing what looks like a painful spiraling out of a team that racked up three straight postseason berths.
Bryan Johansen, a denizen of the Coliseum’s left-field bleachers, has been looking for reasons to feel good about his favorite team. He and fellow fans put together and gifted a hard-cover book for Bassitt comprised of social media comments sent from around the world wishing him best. When he heard Bassitt would be pitching Thursday, he requested a half-day at work to make the trip for the day game.
“When it first happened, I did not think he was coming back,” Johansen said. “I thought there would be permanent damage. I wasn’t coming today, the only reason I came was to see Bassitt. For me it’s the highlight of the year, now knowing that playoffs are out of the picture. The highlight of the season is his return.”
Fans like Johansen enjoyed that brief bit of joy, interrupted by yet another A’s bullpen collapse that handed them a four-game sweep at home. It took two shaky at-bats to start the game — where he issued a leadoff single on his second pitch, then a full-count walk — before getting back to the rhythm like he’d never left.
Bassitt hit 94mph on his fastball and averaged 93mph, up to his pre-injury standard, and threw all six of his pitches. Two of his fours strikeouts came swinging on his loopy curveball. Another surprise.
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“A point which is not talked about enough is that Bassitt was away from his usual training regime for a period of time. The ability to have his arm ready to pitch at a high-level with a disruption in training is important to note as well,” Dr. Pandya said. “Pitchers are such creatures of habit (as are their arms) that his quick return is amazing as well. Plus, the fact that he is coming back at a high-stakes part of the season is even more impressive.”