April 13, 2024

The sound of silence. That’s what Michael Stefanic remembers most about that frightful afternoon in Toronto, when the Angels’ Taylor Ward was struck in the face by a 92-mph fastball from Alek Manoah.

“I’ve never heard 40,000 people go so quiet so quickly,” said Stefanic, the Angels second baseman that July day. “The Blue Jays were competing for a playoff spot, the stadium was packed, the fans were rocking and rolling, the ball came out of Manoah’s hand, and all of a sudden a hush came over the crowd. Everything just stopped. It was like time stood still for a second.”

It seemed like a lot longer for Ward, who still was trying to comprehend what happened as he crumpled to the ground, blood gushing from a cut near his left eye and trainers from both teams rushing onto the field to tend to him.

“When it happened, you don’t really know how bad it is,” said Angels outfielder Mickey Moniak, who was on first base when Ward was beaned. “Sometimes guys will get hit in the head and they’re down for 10, maybe 15 seconds, and they pop right up. In those first 30 seconds, you’re hoping that’s the case. And unfortunately, it wasn’t.”

Ward remained on the ground for several minutes as a visibly upset Manoah held his head in his hands and several Blue Jays took a knee, some bowing their heads in prayer.

Ward was helped to his feet, carted off the field and transported to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with a broken nose and three other fractures — one below his eye, one near his temple and one by his jaw.

“You hear the sound and it’s just scary,” said Matt Chapman, who was playing third base for the Blue Jays that day. “You never want to see somebody go down like that.

“We’re all fighting each other to win baseball games, but at the end of the day, we respect each other, and nobody’s wishing ill will on somebody else. I have to imagine there’s some things you have to overcome mentally from an injury like that.”

Eight months later, Ward is in spring training with the Angels, ready to reclaim his spot in left field and in the heart of the batting order, seemingly no worse for the wear.

He had season-ending reconstruction surgery in which three metal plates were inserted in his face, one of which doctors went through his eyelid to put underneath his eye, and he couldn’t eat solid foods for about two months. But a tiny scar on his left eyelid is about the only physical evidence of the accident.

“The surgeon did a great job,” Ward said last week. “I’m just thankful it wasn’t any higher or any lower.”

Any higher, and Ward could have suffered serious damage to his brain. Any lower, and Ward could have lost some vision in his left eye, a potentially career-ending impairment for a right-handed hitter.

But the physical recovery couldn’t have gone much smoother for Ward, who resumed hitting Nov. 15 and had played in 12 Cactus League games through Monday, batting .310 (nine for 29) with three doubles and four RBIs. The mental scars appear to have healed as well.

“The first pitch of live batting practice, I was on my heels a little bit, but after that, it seemed like riding a bike,” Ward said. “Honestly, there was a game the other day where I got three pitches up and in, and that kind of got to me a bit, but I was able to turn the page pretty quickly.

Taylor Ward #3 of the Los Angeles Angels is helped after being hit by a pitch in Toronto on July 29.

Taylor Ward is helped after being hit by a pitch during a game against the Blue Jays in Toronto on July 29.

(Mark Blinch / Getty Images)

“I do believe guys are going to try to go up there this year. Why not? So I think being able to turn the page as quickly as possible and get back to my approach is going to be the most beneficial thing for me.”

For the Angels too. Ward had a breakout season in 2022, batting .281 with an .833 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 23 homers, 22 doubles and 65 RBIs in 135 games, and was on a lengthy tear before he was hit by that pitch, batting .304 with a 1.047 OPS, five homers, seven doubles and 17 RBIs in 20 July games.

As Ward went, so went the Angels, who were four games back in the American League wild-card race on July 29 and took a 1-0 lead in the fifth inning when Ward was hit by the pitch with the bases loaded.

The Angels went on to lose 6-1. They won their next two games but lost seven straight and 16 of 21 in August to fall out of contention, missing the playoffs for the ninth straight year and suffering their eighth straight losing season.

The loss of Ward might not have triggered the Angels’ collapse, but it certainly was a contributing factor.

“He was producing at the plate and playing an incredible left field, and he’s one of the best players on this team,” Moniak said. “We missed having him in the lineup and playing every day out there. It’s a next-man-up mentality, and we did our best to fill that void, but we weren’t able to get it done.”

The Angels need Ward, who is expected to bat fifth behind Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon, to remain healthy and productive to help offset the loss of slugger Shohei Ohtani. Ward believes he is up to the task.

“Last year I ended the season trending up, and when I started hitting again in November, I actually felt the same as I did [in July],” Ward said. “I learned a lot last year, just early on with the struggles that I had, about the things that make me click and focusing on those little things in my drill work. My swing is feeling good.”

Ward now wears a helmet with a protective C-flap that he is confident will prevent another ball from hitting him in the jaw or face. He also was buoyed by conversations he had with players who have endured similar beanings, such as Justin Turner, who was hit in the face last spring.

“They said you just have to get back up on the horse as soon as you can, and to try to put it in the back of your mind the best you can,” Ward said. “I think I’ve done a really good job of taking their advice and really implementing it.”

It shows.

“He looks really good right now — he looks the same physically and at the plate,” Angels catcher Matt Thaiss said. “It’s crazy how quickly he kind of rebounded from that, and it says everything about him.

“He’s a gamer. Something like that could have really affected him long term, and here he is, a couple of months later, just grinding like he always does. He’s as good as new.”

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