Rockies’ Ryan Feltner nears return 3 months after skull fracture

In the blink of an eye, Ryan Feltner’s life was upended.

His season, his career and even his long-term well-being were put in jeopardy May 13 at Coors Field. For those who saw the game live, or later on replays, it was a chilling moment.

Now, remarkably, Feltner is edging closer to returning to the big-league mound. In a difficult Rockies season colored by injuries and mounting losses, Feltner’s comeback is something for fans to hold on to. For Feltner, returning this season is vital.

Three months ago, in the second inning, the Phillies’ Nick Castellanos scorched a 92.7 mph line drive toward the mound. Feltner had just enough reaction time to avoid getting hit in the face, but the baseball struck Feltner in the back of his head, just above the right ear.

He sprawled on the mound, blinking his eyes and shaking his head, not quite knowing what had happened. Castellanos crouched near first base, hands to his face, eyes wide, as he hoped for the best.

Feltner, a 26-year-old right-hander, suffered a skull fracture and major concussion. Thirteen days later, still a bit unsteady on his feet and dealing with dizzy spells, Feltner spoke about his desire to pitch again for the Rockies. This season.

“I don’t want to rule it out,” he said. “The desire on my end is there. I’m putting my trust in the team, the professionals that know more than I do about the issues. We’re in this process together, but I will pitch again at some point. I don’t know if it will be this year.”

It didn’t seem likely.

But now, Feltner’s hope and desire are looking like reality. Last weekend in St. Louis, Feltner threw his first bullpen session, even unleashing a 92 mph fastball. More bullpen sessions, about two a week, are scheduled. Then he’ll face live hitters, followed up by a trip to the minors for a rehab assignment.

“I think it’s important, and he thinks it’s important, too, for him to get back on the mound this year, so he can have a winter of just getting ready for baseball and not that gray area of the mental hurdle of getting back,” manager Bud Black said recently.

Feltner, who plans to be in the starting rotation next season, doesn’t want to wait until next spring to get back on the mound in a real game.

“I think the pressure of next year and starting a new season, on top of not having pitched since May wouldn’t be the ideal situation,” he said recently. “So the more time on the mound I can get, the better.”

In his eight starts this season, Feltner went 2-3 with a 5.86 ERA. Not great, but there were signs that he was developing into a pitcher who would help the pitching-starved Rockies. On April 20 in Philadelphia, he threw 5 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing three hits, striking out six and walking three.

For Feltner, physical recovery has been only part of the process. Within days of getting hit in the head, Feltner was meeting with specialists to make sure the mental trauma of that moment didn’t overwhelm him.

“That (was) the first bridge that I crossed — the mental aspect of it,” he said. “Not that I’m spooked by it, but I wanted to get out in front of it, just in case.”

Throughout his ordeal, Feltner was heartened by the support from his teammates, and from players throughout baseball. Feltner heard from Blue Jays pitcher Chris Bassitt, who was pitching for Oakland when he was hit in the face with a line drive on Aug. 17, 2021. Bassitt returned to pitch a little more than four weeks later.

Castellanos also reached out the day after his liner hit Feltner in the head.

“He sent me a little letter and a nice little gift,” Feltner said. “For me, it was part of the process. I felt bad for him because I saw how upset he was. But it’s part of the game.”

Now Feltner is closer to getting back into the game he loves.

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