When Nick Castellanos hit a 92.7 mph line drive that connected with the right side of Ryan Feltner’s head, the safety of the 26-year-old was the only thing anyone cared about in that moment.
Now, three months since the incident which resulted in a skull fracture and concussion, Feltner is hoping to play for the Colorado Rockies once more in 2023.
“I realized through this whole thing, I just love the challenge,” Feltner said of his comeback trail. “That’s one of the things that kind of keeps me going through this.”
Feltner spent some of his rehabilitation at the Rockies facility at Salt River Fields for drill work and general rehab before taking the mound on Saturday at Coors Field for the first time since the incident. He faced a live hitter and an L-screen was placed in front of him for protection, something that was the team’s decision.
RHP Ryan Feltner returns to the mound at Coors Field for live batting practice for the first time since May 13.
— Patrick Lyons (@PatrickDLyons) August 19, 2023
“I appreciate them protecting me and it didn’t really affect anything either,” he said afterwards. “So I still feel like I got really good work in with that.”
Following the injury, several players from around the sport reached out to Feltner in support. Chris Bassitt of the Toronto Blue Jays, who suffered one of the more gruesome incidents in 2021 when a 100.1 mph line drive caused a facial fracture, contacted Feltner while teammate Matt Koch, who was struck in the head as a minor leaguer in 2013, also proved helpful with advice.
The live BP could have been approached like a formality for the third-year starter. Time to get back to going through the motions, check off a box and feel some semblance of normalcy. But that wouldn’t be normal, according to Feltner. Instead, he approached the day as he would a game in which he was the starting pitcher.
Suzie Hunter sits down with #Rockies pitcher Ryan Feltner to talk about his plan to pitch again this season after his skull fracture.
— DNVR Rockies (@DNVR_Rockies) August 18, 2023
“I think that’s important for me. It’s easy to kind of take it as just a bullpen to hitters and whatever,” Feltner shared, “But given the fact that I’ve been out of games for so long, I think that the pregame routine for me is so intricate and on time and I wanted to try to get back in the swing of those things as well.”
Feltner walked through the clubhouse with a purpose on Saturday before his outing. A determined look covered his face while sitting at his locker. Headphones affixed to his once fractured skull blocked the noise of teammates and beat reporters discussing matters of the game. Rap and then heavy metal and then electronic dance music improved his mood.
“I gotta wake myself up. I’m normally a pretty chill guy, so I got to kind of turn into a different person,” he said. “A lot of guys like country (music) and they need to be calmed down before they go out there, but I’m the opposite. I kind of need to be woken up a little bit.”
Though Feltner will return to a 5.86 ERA over eight starts in his next official appearance in purple pinstripes, he had a five-start stretch from April 9 to May 2 with a 3.51 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 25.2 innings pitched. He’ll head back to Scottsdale for more build up arm strength required for a return to the Majors during more live bullpen sessions. Even if he’s never able to be the best version of himself over longer stretches, his presence in Colorado’s rotation for 2024 will be invaluable.
With Germán Márquez and Antonio Senzatela set to begin next season on the injured list following Tommy John surgery, the club needs some reliability with starting pitchers as only Kyle Freeland and Austin Gomber are still locks to get the ball every fifth day.
Peter Lambert has emerged since being placed in the rotation, pitching to a 3.34 ERA over seven starts dating back to July 1. Getting Feltner back, with a normal offseason, would allow for the Rockies to trend upward.
There was another key difference in Feltner’s live BP. Besides the presence of an L-screen, there was a thoughtful decision he made on his own: protective padding inside the right half of his cap.
#Rockies Ryan Feltner used a new protective product by EvoShield following his skull fracture.
The motivation is more about being a role model.
“Now that it’s happened with me, it got me worried about it with kids and I just think, ‘Why not?’” pic.twitter.com/3qykr9YBvx
— Patrick Lyons (@PatrickDLyons) August 19, 2023
“It felt a little lopsided. Once you get used to it, it’s normal. We have the PitchCom in there anyways, (so) I’m used to just having something in there. It’s just I’ll have something on both sides now,” Feltner said before joking, “ Put candy in there too, probably.”
The padding is produced by equipment company Evoshield and is not yet available on their website. Feltner went up one size in his usual fitted cap to accommodate for the added protection. Though he doesn’t plan on taking another line drive to the head, he sees this experience as an opportunity to make an impact beyond himself.
“I was thinking back to my days as a kid,” he shared. “You know, now that it’s happened to me, I worry about with with kids and I just think that, ‘Why not?’”