Angels’ Taylor Ward opens up about recovery from 92 mph sinker to face

All Taylor Ward felt near his cheek was a sensation that he described as “vibrating.” He was scared, yes, because he was bleeding from a cut by his eye. He knew something bad had happened. But in the moments right after getting hit in the face by a 92-mile-per-hour sinker, the physical reality had yet to fully wash over him.

His brain had yet to comprehend what had happened to his face.

Five weeks ago, the 29-year-old Angels outfielder stood in the batter’s box for a team locked in a pennant race. He was just a season removed from a breakout performance that solidified his status as a major leaguer. Now, he was just a hot hitter trying to stay hot, hoping to do some damage against the Blue Jays’ Alek Manoah.

Ward watched two sliders float toward the same up-and-in location, and out of the pitcher’s hand, the third offering appeared to be doing the same. But it didn’t slide, it didn’t float, it didn’t bend or break. By the time Ward realized this, it was too late.

The ball hit him flush. He crumpled to the ground as team trainers frantically sprinted to his side.

“Everyone’s story is different,” Ward told The Athletic by phone this week, his first public comments since undergoing facial reconstruction surgery that ended his season. “I feel like I’ve come to a reason why this happened. And I’m able to, at least standing right here — I hope when I step in the box as things move forward, (I’m able to) move past this.”

Ward was, and remains, a professional athlete in the prime of his career. He posted an .833 OPS last season, emerging as an everyday player and top-notch defensive left fielder. In the four weeks leading up to his fateful July 29 at-bat against Manoah, Ward had posted an OPS of 1.047.

Now, he’s awaiting medical clearance to complete basic tasks. It will be three weeks before he’s allowed to blow his nose.

“It’s definitely weird, and it puts you in an interesting spot,” Ward said. “But like anything, you adapt. You think about it initially, and then you don’t think about it anymore as days go on.”

Ward’s parents often travel to see play on the road. But neither made the trip to Toronto, where Ward soon found himself in the back of an ambulance. His adrenaline started to wear off, which made the pain of his shattered bones feel sharper.

“I don’t remember how it felt up until I could feel how it felt,” he said. “So much was going through my mind at the time that I wasn’t really thinking about the pain anymore.”

With Ward in the hospital, his family relied on updates from Angels head trainer Mike Frostad, and Ward’s agent, Joel Wolfe. Later that evening, he was discharged and given painkillers to keep him comfortable. He didn’t check his phone until he was finally back in his hotel room.

Waiting for him was a text from Manoah. The pitcher had lingered outside the training room so he could apologize before Ward was taken to the hospital. Now he was reaching out again. Ward made it clear that there were no hard feelings.

“I don’t know how it will affect him,” he said. “Everyone is going to have a different way of getting past this. I hope he can, and I wish him the best moving forward.”

That night, there were too many messages to return. So he composed a single text to update his status and sent it individually to those who had reached out. That text, Ward said, was accompanied with a photo of his face. He hoped it would ease his friends’ minds, and bring a little levity to an otherwise dire situation.

“I was joking around,” Ward said, “saying I needed to get my nose fixed.”

The damage, however, was no joke. Though Ward did not suffer a concussion, and his eyesight was not impacted, the sinker to his face left him with three fractures: one to his orbital floor directly below his eye, one by his temple, and another by his jaw.

On Aug. 5, Ward underwent surgery. Doctors inserted three different plates. He said that the third was necessary because the doctor found that his skull was loose.

Coming out of the operation, Ward could not eat solid foods, forced to consume only liquids and broth. Nor could he breathe out of his nose because of four-inch splints in each nostril. He said he’s become “a mouth breather” and a heavy snorer, acknowledging he’s probably become a nuisance to his wife.

It’s been a little more than a month since surgery. Ward still hasn’t been able to drink through a straw.

This week, Ward traveled back home to Arizona. He feels guilty about not being in the lineup. It has weighed on him. During this interview, he noted that an Angels game was set to begin in just a few minutes. He watches every game.

The circumstances, however, have required him to be present in his recovery. Though he was just cleared to begin riding an exercise bike, there are still many things he cannot do. His day-to-day life has been impacted significantly. He’s working to get it back, though slowly.

Taylor Ward is carted off the field. (Mark Blinch / Getty Images)

Other players have suffered a similar fate. Dickie Thon, a former Angel, also broke his orbital bone when he was struck in the face by a pitch in 1984. He suffered depth perception issues, and it impacted the rest of his career. The final plate appearance of Kirby Puckett’s Hall of Fame career ended with a pitch that broke his jaw. (He’d retire the next year when glaucoma cost him the vision in his right eye.)

More recently, players who have been hit by pitches in the face include Giancarlo Stanton, Kevin Pillar and Justin Turner, the two-time All-Star with whom Ward has spoken with at length.

Turner was among many to offer support. Ward’s teammates have reached.out frequently. He specifically credited his wife and mother for helping him through the difficult recovery process.

“If there’s anything that I needed, they were there,” Ward said. “It’s been wonderful to have them.”

In one way, Ward will never be the same. The sinker to his face left him with a broken nose, resulting in what he called a “banana shape” curve. But doctors couldn’t reconstruct his nose exactly as it was before. So the slight curve remains on his bridge. That imperfection has become a point of pride.

“I think it’s kind of good for me to have that too,” Ward said. “Not that I want to be reminded of what happened. But I think it is kind of a cool story. These things happen, and it’s OK with me.”

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Taylor Ward was on a hot streak before suffering a season-ending injury. (Rob Leiter / MLB Photos via Getty Images)

That mindset has permeated Ward’s thinking throughout this whole ordeal. He said he has come to terms with the injury. He knows there will be questions about his ability to get back in the box. One of his greatest gifts as a hitter is his comfort at the plate and his ability to recognize pitches — things that could be impacted by emotional scars left by taking a pitch to the face. But he intends to come back as the same hitter he was before the injury.

“(I’ll) try to basically get as comfortable as I can and forget what happened,” said Ward, who hopes that adding a new C-flap to his batting helmet will help allay any lingering fears. “Put that in the back of your mind and let other thoughts take control.”

It would be easy for Ward to wonder why me? Though thoughts like that would be more than fair, Ward has proactively avoided that mindset. He understands that there’s a balance between embracing that this incident happened while also moving past it.

“I think of this as a badge of honor,” Ward said. “Not something that’s going to be a detriment or something I’m always going to have in the back of my head. It’s just baseball.

“I am on that list now. I guess it’s kinda cool.”

(Top photo of Ward after being hit in the face by a pitch: Mark Blinch / Getty Images)

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