First the comebacker, then Downs makes comeback
Astros reliever going strong after being hit in head by line drive in 2009
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Darin Downs remembers everything -- the count, how many runners were on base, the batter who was in the box and worried feeling he got when he began spitting up blood in the clubhouse. Before he knew it, his life was on the line.
Downs was having the best year of his career in 2009, going 12-4 with a 2.00 ERA in 20 games (19 starts) at Class A Charlotte in the Rays organization and had just gotten called up to Double-A Montgomery. His ultimate goal of reaching the Majors was getting closer, before tragedy nearly struck.
During a game in Birmingham, Ala., Downs was hit in the head by a line drive and sustained a traumatic head injury. He spent nearly two weeks in the hospital, including three days in intensive care.
"I can recall the whole thing, the status of the runners, what the count was and everything," said Downs, a left-handed reliever whom the Astros claimed off waivers in November from the Tigers.
Downs, 29, went through a tough recovery, but managed to get on the mound six months later, and within three years was pitching in the Major Leagues with the Tigers. Now he's in Astros camp competing for a spot in the bullpen and grateful for any opportunities that come his way.
"I'm excited for what we have in store this year," said Downs, who threw 35 1/3 innings in 29 games in relief last year.
Downs has appeared in 47 Major League games, going 2-3 with a 4.34 ERA with the Tigers the last two years. Prior to that, he had made more than 250 Minor League appearances in nine years, but one stands out more than any others.
It was Aug. 17, 2009, and Downs was making his second start for Montgomery. Trailing 2-0 in the fifth inning with runners at first and second, Downs threw a fastball to Christian Marrero that he lined back toward the mound.
The ball struck Downs above the left ear, dropping him to the ground as the ball ricocheted into a camera well. Downs walked off the field with help and was eventually taken by ambulance to the hospital, where he spent three days in intensive care with a skull fracture and swelling.
In the moments following the injury, Downs had trouble speaking, which raised concern levels. Then he began throwing up blood and was telling himself "Don't go to sleep! Don't go to sleep!" His wife and mother-in-law and other family members came to his bedside.
"They weren't sure I was going to make it through the night," Downs said. "It was kind of one of those things where we were going to play it by ear, and as the day went on I got better and progressed."
Still, for two weeks, Downs struggled to communicate.
"I could barely talk," Downs said. "The right side of my face was kind of paralyzed a little bit. It was a real struggle going through that."
Another thing that was on Downs' mind was his wedding, which was set to take place three months following the injury. He and his wife, Christy, were married that November and have a daughter, Briana.
"I was scared, but by the Grace of God, I'm here," Downs said. "I was worried because if I can't talk, how am I going to get married? How am I going to play baseball and make money supporting my family? A lot of thoughts go through your head, and I tried to stay strong."
Downs missed the rest of the season, but returned to have another strong year in the Minors in 2010, going a combined 12-4 with a 2.95 ERA between Montgomery and Triple-A Durham. He quickly overcame his fears of facing live hitters during Spring Training.
"They removed the screen [in front of the mound] and after that, it was, 'All right, just trust your stuff and get the ball down and just get after it,'" Downs said.
For the first time this year, Major League Baseball will allow pitchers to use caps with special padding on the inside to help avoid incidents like the one that happened to Downs in 2009 and last year to former Astros pitcher J.A. Happ while he was with Toronto.
Downs said the protective caps are too heavy, so he plans to approach the game in the same fashion that he always has.
"It was a fluke thing," Downs said. "One in a million pitches. Last year, it happened a couple of times, but you just have to get it and go."