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Atlanta Braves: Will Jason Heyward Be the Same Player After Being Hit in the Face?

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COMMENTARY | We mere mortals may never know the set of stones it takes to willfully agree to step into a 4-by-6 rectangle and wait while someone throws a hard piece of cork and rawhide 90-mph from 60 feet away.

Although MLB pitchers make their money from their ability to repeatedly place the baseball over a 17-inch home plate with laser-sighted precision, pitchers are far from perfect and occasionally let throws get away and strike the heads and faces of unsuspecting batters. Professionals or not, getting back into the box after getting drilled in the head is going to make anyone a little apprehensive.

The Atlanta Braves' Jason Heyward is expected to be back in time for the postseason, but the question that remains to be answered is whether or not suffering a fractured jaw from a Jonathon Niese fastball is going to have lingering mental implications for Heyward when he returns.

Maybe expectations can be realistically adjusted by analyzing the way past players have been able to return from their own plunkings:

Paul Konerko, 1B, Chicago White Sox vs. Chicago Cubs: May 18, 2012

Had he not found a career as a major league first baseman, Paul Konerko may have had a calling as a Chicago Blackhawks defenseman. The Sox's slugger took an 85-mph Jeff Samardzija splitter right to the dome and walked away with nothing more than a small cut above his left eye. Konerko missed only two games and came back swinging a red-hot bat. Upon his return, Konerko pushed his already seven-game hitting streak to 14, during which time he added three home runs and 10 RBIs.

While Konerko should be considered the exception, not the rule, his unaffected demeanor could have been due to the fact that he had already been through such an incident. On Sept. 16, 2010, "Paulie" got struck in the mouth from Minnesota Twins hurler Carl Pavano, but did not even leave the game. In fact, Konerko stayed in and took Pavano deep in his very next at-bat.

David Wright, 3B, New York Mets vs. San Francisco Giants: Aug. 15, 2009

In 2009, the Mets third baseman was enjoying an All-Star season for New York, but in a chance meeting with San Francisco Giants hurler Matt Cain, his season would take a swift turn for the worse. Ahead in an 0-2 count, Cain elevated a 93-mph fastball inside to Wright that rose too far and struck the Mets' slugger squarely in the side of the head.

Wright would be diagnosed with a concussion and forced to miss the next 15 games on the New York schedule. Before he was beaned, Wright was hitting .327 with eight home runs and 55 RBIs. In the month after Wright returned to the lineup, he hit just .223 and struck out 34 times. Some argue that his slump could have been caused by the giant, cumbersome safety helmet he chose to wear -- I wonder why the look never caught on.

Ray Chapman, SS, Cleveland Indians vs. New York Yankees: Aug. 16, 1920

Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman died as a result of being struck in the head by a Carl Mays fastball during a game against the New York Yankees in 1920. Long before batting helmets were a required piece of a hitter's uniform, players stepped up to the plate wearing nothing but their cotton caps.

Per the New York Times 1920 report, "The blow had caused a depressed fracture in Chapman's head three and a half inches long. Dr. Merrigan removed a piece of skull about an inch and a half square and found the brain had been so severely jarred that blood clots had formed. The shock of the blow had lacerated the brain not only on the left side of the head where the ball struck but also on the right side where the shock of the blow had forced the brain against the skull."

Chapman remains the only fatality caused from being hit with a pitch in a major league game. It was not until 36 years after Chapman's death that the National League required batting helmets be worn. The American League did not adopt the rule until 1958.

Tony Conigliaro, OF, Boston Red Sox vs. California Angles: Aug. 18, 1967

The career of Boston Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigliaro has become a cautionary tale for how fragile a player's time in the big leagues can be. In 1967, he was having a stellar season while hitting .287 with 20 homers, but California Angles fireballer Jack Hamilton would forever alter the course of Conigliaro's life.

Hamilton's pitch hit the 22-year-old in the face and temporarily blinded him. Conigliaro had to be carried off the field on a stretcher and would later be diagnosed with a dislocated jaw, fractured orbital bone and retina damage to his left eye. Conigliaro missed the entire 1968 season and would be forced to retire from the game altogether in 1971 due to continued problems with depth perception.

At the time, batting helmets did not have the protective ear flaps that they do today, which likely would have deflected at least some of the direct impact Conigliaro suffered.

Getting struck with a fastball to the face is never going to be exactly the same for one player as it is for the next. Atlanta fans hope Heyward can be the same player who had solidified the Braves' lineup after taking over the leadoff responsibilities. But until he steps back in that box, not even Heyward himself knows how he will react.

A positive sign for his return to form is that fact that he never lost consciousness after being plunked, and Heyward's natural stance has him standing so far away from the plate that he will not have to feel as overly claustrophobic as a player who routinely crowds the dish.

A clear indication of Heyward's potential tentativeness will be whether or not he is driving ball to the opposite field. Any apprehension at the plate could have him bailing out early and trying to pull everything. If this happens, it will likely find him striking out a lot on outside pitches or rolling over softly to second base.

Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter who has been following the Atlanta Braves for over 20 years. He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.

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