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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees camp takes a horrifying turn as Masahiro Tanaka is hit in the head by line drive

Aaron Judge #99 of the Yankees looks into

Aaron Judge #99 of the Yankees looks into the stands as teammate Masahiro Tanaka is tended to after he was hit by a batted ball from Giancarlo Stanton (right) during Spring Training at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, July 4, 2020. Credit: Jim McIsaac

As if everything wasn’t scary enough already, trying to salvage this baseball season amid a raging pandemic, the Yankees’ summer camp took a horrifying turn Saturday minutes after they stepped onto the field for their first official workout in the Bronx.

Masahiro Tanaka, who recently returned from his home in Japan, had thrown only a few pitches to both Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres before Giancarlo Stanton walked to the plate.

Judge had popped up foul. Torres had grounded to second base. Benign, just-getting-adjusted-again swings.

Stanton merely watched his first two pitches sail by. There was no warning for what happened next, when an otherwise routine live batting practice session went sideways in the worst possible scenario.

Stanton’s first swing resulted in a punishing line drive that caromed off the right side of Tanaka’s head, dropping him to the dirt instantly. It was over in a blink. The Yankees, frozen by shock, actually needed a moment or two themselves just to process what had gone down before rushing to the mound.

“That stops you in your tracks,” manager Aaron Boone said.

Of all the Yankees, putting Stanton in that position was an incredibly cruel twist of fate. The powerful Stanton delivers the hardest-hit balls in the sport, and before last year’s lost season, his maximum exit velocity of 121.7 mph led the majors (his 93.7 mph average ranked fourth in 2018). Just the wrong place, wrong time for a slugger that dangerous, and he wound up on the wrong side of an incident that almost carried the odds of a lightning strike.

“That’s kind of a freak accident, a one-in-a-million chance of happening,” said Jordan Montgomery, whose turn on the mound followed the fallen Tanaka. “And when it does, it’s terrifying. It’s really hard to see.''

For Stanton, it had to be unbearable, and he sank to a crouch, staring at the ground, paralyzed in the batter’s box. Not only was he holding the weapon in his hands, but he could have been experiencing flashbacks of his own frightening head injury, the result of being hit in the face by Mike Fiers' fastball in 2014.

Stanton suffered multiple jaw fractures and required significant dental repair after that 88-mph pitch crushed the left side of his skull. He’s worn a face guard bolted to his helmet ever since. It required time for those mental scars to heal as well.

The damage from these episodes isn’t limited to the players who get sent to the hospital, which is where Tanaka wound up for further evaluation and tests while the somber Yankees continued Saturday’s session.

“It’s just one of those things where as soon as you step on the field, anything can happen,” Aaron Hicks said.

Hicks is right, of course. But watching Tanaka crumble like that because of a teammate’s innocent action was brutal to stomach.  There is bad luck, and then there is the avalanche of stunningly frequent injuries this championship-caliber team keeps having to endure.

The Yankees kicked off summer camp as a World Series favorite, just as they were before most people had really heard of the coronavirus here in the States. You could even argue the three-month layoff worked to their advantage, giving Stanton (calf), Judge (broken rib), Hicks (Tommy John surgery) and James Paxton (back surgery) the extra rehab time to be ready for this rescheduled Opening Day.

In reality, health no longer seemed like a pressing issue for the Yankees, aside from just staying that way through a rushed spring training 2.0 and the intensity of a 60-game sprint of a season. Then Tanaka gets smoked, and a few hours later, Boone reveals that DJ LeMahieu and Luis Cessa tested positive for COVID-19 before even making it to New York for the intake screening.

Despite the homecoming vibe of the Yankee Stadium return, as first days go, this was not a feel-good afternoon for Boone & Co. But the news had gotten better by the time Boone finished up his evening Zoom call with reporters.

While Tanaka did show up at the hospital with concussion-like symptoms, his CT scan was negative, and the Yankees announced Saturday night that he was headed home.

On the coronavirus front, LeMahieu was asymptomatic and Cessa had reported a mild case, so Boone was optimistic about their recoveries.

These Yankees have a shown a disturbing tendency to make everyone hold their breath, fearful of what’s next. No one had to remind Montgomery. Tanaka chose not to use an L screen to shield him during live BP and Montgomery didn’t plan to either — until Stanton’s liner flipped Yankeeland upside down.

“After seeing that, I had it in the back of my head, so I felt it was safer to put it up,” Montgomery said. “I requested it because I was shaken up.”

Everyone inside Yankee Stadium was rattled, from the press box down to the pitcher’s mound, when the empty ballpark went eerily silent.

Baseball’s return to the Bronx was supposed to be a welcome preview of the new normal, but the distraction was gone in a matter of minutes, replaced again by life-or-death concerns we’re all too familiar with these days.

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