When Kevin Pillar signed with the Mets, the word I heard most to describe him was tough.
It’s an adjective that gets thrown around a lot, but can be difficult to quantify, especially with a new team, only six weeks into a season.
Then Pillar showed up Tuesday for an on-camera Zoom interview, less than 24 hours after getting drilled square in the face by a 95-mph fastball from Atlanta reliever Jacob Webb. He spent the night in the hospital, and the last time we saw him, Pillar was on sprawled out on all-fours, blood gushing from his nose, trainers patting him with towels.
On Tuesday, at 6 p.m., Pillar actually looked worse. Two black eyes framed a swollen, purple nose. A long line of stitches ran down the middle. His right nostril was plugged up with gauze.
My first thought? Nobody is that tough.
And yet here was Pillar, speaking for more than 20 minutes, taking questions as if this were any routine media session, like this was a completely normal thing to do. I’d never seen anything like it. Not this soon, for an injury this serious.
Despite dodging catastrophe by inches -- miraculously the ball missed his eye sockets -- Pillar’s first instinct was to apologize for being the latest Mets’ casualty, the 13th player added to the injured list. And talk about how quickly he could return.
"I pride myself on being available," Pillar said. "So I think my immediate reaction was sadness. That I don’t know what the extent of what just happened was and I know that I’m leaving a game and I know we’ve already been shorthanded with injuries, so it was frustrating.
"My initial reaction was to get up and go to first base, and as I was on the ground, I was bleeding a lot, and I knew this wasn’t normal ... My face will heal, but my heart’s broken because this team is hurting right now."
I’m not sure what the record is for the quickest time to Mets cult-hero status, but Pillar has got to be in the running for the title after Tuesday’s performance. The horrifying video from Monday’s beaning already had gone viral as Pillar went through a battery of tests after the Mets’ improbable 3-1 victory and he made sure to tweet out that he was "fine" shortly before midnight.
"Fine" is a relative term, however. To Pillar, who seemingly has a supernatural threshold for pain, it apparently has a much different meaning. Few would look into a mirror, study the swollen, bruised face staring back at us, and declare ourselves "fine." This is the same guy who took a 97-mph fastball to the jaw from the Padres’ Dinelson Lamet two years ago and didn’t even come out of the game. After Pillar passed the concussion protocol, he played the next day, too.
Which explains why Pillar strolled back into the visitors clubhouse at Truist Field Tuesday afternoon and said he was ready to return to the lineup -- if only he could see out of his right eye. Manager Luis Rojas was no doubt relieved that Pillar didn’t put up a fight about taking a seat that night.
"I was joking about wanting to get into the cage today," Pillar said. "Not necessarily for hitting, but just having right-on-right curve balls being thrown at me. Whether it’s one or two and just kind of let myself know it’s OK.
"Obviously, right now it’s easy to sit here in shorts, knowing I’m not playing, and say that I’m going to be super-comfortable in the box. It’s another thing to go and do it. But I also remind myself that I’ve had over 3,000 at-bats in my career and I’ve been hit twice in the face. It’s such a small percentage ... I think I’ll be fine."
As the conversation continued, it became clear that Pillar didn’t seem at all nervous about himself. He was concerned about everyone else. His wife and parents watching back home in California. His teammates. The shattered Webb, who crouched by the mound, in shock at what he’d done, as Pillar was stretched out, facedown, in the bloody dirt. Pillar met with Webb before Tuesday’s game, told him no hard feelings. They hugged.
"I’m almost more worried about him because I saw his reaction," Pillar said. "I told him I know it was unintentional. That he needs to continue to be confident and believe in himself and that I’ll be fine."
Even Pillar is going to require a little time to recover. Next up for him is an appointment with a plastic surgeon in New York to repair the nasal fractures after the swelling goes down, and then he’ll probably need another two weeks beyond that to resume baseball activities. To no one’s surprise, Pillar was in uniform for Tuesday night’s game, and watched the game from the dugout rail with his teammates.
"My plan is to be back as soon as possible," Pillar said.
Knowing Pillar, take the under on that one. Someone should hide his glove and bat just to be safe.